It may only have been the 5th of November last night, but the most glittering and festive show of the year officially opened at the packed Dominion Theatre. Audience members (clad in Christmas jumpers and Santa hats) took their seats for the West End premiere of Elf in high hopes of experiencing a healthy dose of premature Christmas spirit. Thanks to two shining stars, they certainly weren't disappointed.
The musical relies heavily, of course, on the central character of Buddy the Elf and Sunderland's finest Ben Forster delivers an adorable, knock-out performance in the role originally created by Will Ferrell in the 2003 movie. The other star of the show is the extravagantly impressive production design by Tim Goodchild. Producers have obviously not shied away from pumping money into the sets of Elf, which range from Christmas Town in the North Pole to the toy department of Macy's to Greenway Press Offices high up in the Empire State Building to the ice rink at the Rockefeller Center (to name just a few). Normally I am not the biggest admirer of video wall backdrops, but the animations projected merge so well with the physical elements of the set that sometimes it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. This combination of leading man (or elf) and set design should establish Elf the Musical as a certified hit for the young and the young-at-heart.
There is also some lovely support from Jennie Dale as an enchantingly bubbly Deb, Joe McGann as the stern Walter Hobbs (who eventually succumbs to the message of the piece and chooses spending time with family over work commitments to raise some Christmas spirit), and from a generally underused Kimberley Walsh as Jovie, who shows off her credentials in her show-stopping number "Never Fall in Love (with an Elf)" in Act II.
For anyone who (like me) has never seen the 2003 movie, Elf follows the story of Buddy, a thirty year old, 6'2" tall man, who believes he is an elf. As a baby he crawled into Santa's toy sack during the old man's visit to an orphanage in New York. Upon his return to the North Pole, Santa discovers the stowaway and Buddy is brought up by his elves. When the secret of his origin is revealed, Buddy takes a trip to New York City to find his biological father - his mother passed away soon after his birth - and start a new life. Walter Hobbs, who runs a children's book publishing company, is the man in question. He has a family of his own, who feel neglected by Walter, especially during the Holiday season. Can Buddy's infectious joy for all things festive melt Walter's corporate heart and can he bring some happiness into the love-starved heart of Jovie, the girl he meets and falls for at Macy's toy department? Will he find where he truly belongs and will he help Santa raise some Christmas spirit in the disbelieving and down-trodden New York City?
Besides some slightly forced British references such as "a game of footie between Arsenal and Chelsea" and "Nando's" (Yes, you heard it - "Nando's!"), the show keeps the feel of a modern classic Broadway musical, with tight choreography courtesy of director Morgan Young and a hard-working ensemble (the "Sparklejollytwinklejingley" number particularly impresses). The vast orchestra gives infectious life to Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin's sickly sweet score with jazz-hand-inducing numbers such as "Just Like Him" and "The Story of Buddy," toe-tapping moody blues numbers such as "Nobody Cares About Santa," and heart-warming ballads like "I'll Believe In You." To end the show with snow falling from the Dominion's ceiling as Santa takes flight in his sleigh certainly evokes a sight that children will recall for many Christmases to come. At the end of the day, that's what theatre and Christmas should have in common - they should both make memories.
There are only 49 days to go until Christmas and thanks to Buddy and friends, I can't elfing wait!
Elf the Musical plays at Dominion Theatre until 2nd January 2016.