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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

‘Elf’ at Toby’s Brings Christmas Right This Very Minute

The cast of Elf The Musical

It may be 95 degrees outside, but when the doors at Toby’s Dinner & Show opened, it might as well be a frosty December at the North Pole.

Elf The Musical, a fanciful, totally enjoyable Christmas production based on the 2003 film with the same name, is a welcome remedy for the horrendous past 15 months we endured that included essentially missing in-person holiday celebrations with family and friends due to the lockdown.

As Broadway musical icon Jerry Herman penned for the classic Mame, “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute. We need a little Christmas now!”  With the production Elf, Toby’s delivers just that—in the midst of summer—and at a time we could all use it.

Yes, the pandemic and the associated government restrictions have altered theatre production schedules so what would normally be a timely Christmas musical in December, we can celebrate the holiday in July. In fact, Toby’s bills the show as “Christmas in July.”

Leaving the heat outside, patrons enter a holiday wonderland in a comfortably air conditioned theater with Christmas trees attached to the walls and lit garland and cardboard snowflakes above. The simple Christmas atmosphere is done just right by scenic designer David A. Hopkins.

The musical, which played on Broadway from 2010 to 2011, the West End from 2015 to 2016 and spawned several tours, was scored by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin. The book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan was adapted from the film version, which did not contain music.

The songs are largely sentimental and lighthearted with melodies that are not necessarily memorable. Nonetheless, they effectively tie the story together and are performed exceedingly well by the Toby’s cast and the four-piece orchestra conducted by Nathan Scavilla on the evening of this reviewed performance.

The story is about a young orphan named Buddy Hobbs who accidentally crawls into Santa’s bag of toys and winds up at the North Pole where he is brought up by elves. He thought he was one of them as he became older until one blurted out he was really human.  Santa urged him to travel to New York City to find his actual father who happens to be on Santa’s naughty list because he doesn’t believe in, well, Santa and by extension, the spirit of Christmas.

Buddy learns to his chagrin that all adults do not believe in Santa Claus. He attempts to win over his newly discovered family and instill the true meaning of Christmas. Along the way, Buddy finds love that showcases some of the more touching scenes in the show.

"In a tour de force, veteran performer Jeffrey Shankle, slays the lead role of Buddy."

In over a decade of covering productions at Toby’s, there are three constants. One, the buffet is always scrumptious and themed to the show that is playing. Two, there is maximum effort put forth by the performers, musicians and technical crew under solid direction. And three, Helen Hayes award winners Director and Choreographer Mark Minnick and Artistic Director Toby Orenstein always seem to cast the right people for the roles. In Elf, that wonderful trend continues.

In a tour de force, veteran performer Jeffrey Shankle, slays the lead role of Buddy.  Playing the naive but happy elf/human, Mr. Shankle draws upon his comedic instincts, timing and superb vocals. Not only is his singing pitch perfect, but man can he hold a note! Mr. Shankle’s tenor voice is in stellar form in such songs as “”Happy All The Time,” “World’s Greatest Dad,” “Just Like Him” and in a marvelous, well-choreographed production number “Nobody Cares About Santa.”  

His duet with his love interest Jovie, played well by MaryKate Brouillet, in the tender ballad “A Christmas Song” is moving. Ms. Brouillet also showcases her crystal clear, melodic voice in the touching “Never Fall In Love (With An Elf)”.

Jeffrey Shankle as Buddy

The supporting cast is similarly outstanding. David Bosley-Reynolds as the stern father Walter Hobbs exhibits his strong acting skills and solid baritone voice. With his job on the line as a developer of children’s books and little time for family, Mr. Bosley-Reynolds as Walter conveys his toughness and newly revealed tenderness as the story unfolds. He performs well in the group number “In The Way.”

Janine Sunday does a fine job as Emily Hobbs, Buddy’s stepmother and devoted wife of Walter. She proficiently expresses her true love for her family while hoping her beleaguered husband spends more time with them. It was Emily who procured a DNA test to prove that Buddy is Walter’s son.

Her son Michael, an adorable and smart 12 year-old, was played by Luka Van Herksen on the night of this review. He demonstrates potential as a strong performer in musical theatre as he is blessed with a fantastic singing voice. Happily, Luka had the opportunity to showcase that talent in duets with Ms. Sunday in “I’ll Believe In You” and “There Is A Santa Claus.”  He shares that role with two other boys on a rotating basis.

DeCarlo Raspberry performs admirably in the dual roles of Santa Claus and Manager using his laudable comedic skills. He also can sing with the best of them and performs well in the production number “Happy All The Time” and in a solo “Nobody Cares (Santa Reprise)”.

Other members of the cast and ensemble are outstanding as well. They acted, they sang, they danced, they moved set pieces, they did it all. Among them are Kalen Robinson, Alexis Krey, Justin Calhoun, Shane Lowry, Crystal Freeman, AJ Whittenberger and Patricia Targete.

Then there is the always entertaining David James, who effectively plays the part of Walter’s boss, the cranky and demanding Mr. Greenway who never spent Christmas with his family in 30 years to build a children’s book company and it shows.

Mark Minnick’s choreography is precise and detailed as always. Using all areas of the in-the-round stage, the performers moved about in synch and in rhythm. Such numbers as “In The Way,” “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” (what a title!) and “Nobody Cares About Santa” are fine examples. And the simulated Rockefeller Center skating rink with several cast members rollerblading in lieu of ice skates in the number “A Christmas Song” is a nice touch.

Brilliantly hued costumes were coordinated by Janine Sunday—from colorful elf attire to street garb. There are countless combinations and costume changes throughout—all executed seamlessly.

Also notable are the imaginative set pieces employed. David A. Hopkins and Shane Lowry (also a member of the Ensemble) designed numerous clever props and sets especially in the opening scene where the elves were riding wagons. That was awesome.

And kudos to sound designer John Pantazis for the well mic’d audio throughout.

Elf The Musical is an early Christmas present for the young and not so young. It provides much joy and fun in Santa’s bag of goodies for a laugh-filled, nostalgic escape highlighted by a talented cast and crew under expert direction.  Enjoy the show, think Christmas even now, and know that you won’t have to deal with icy roads on the way home.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

Elf The Musical runs through August 22 at Toby’s Dinner & Show, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 410-730-8311 or visiting online . The website also contains the theater's updated policies and protocols that are in place to add comfort to the patrons.

Photos by Jeri Tidwell Photography

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