The season’s first snow dusted the town in white earlier this week—a teaser, perhaps, for the North Pole invasion as “Elf the Musical” opens at the Avalon.
Based on the 2003 comedy starring Will Ferrell in the title role, “Elf” opened on Broadway in 2010. It’s the unlikely story of an orphan baby who crawls into Santa Claus’ bag of gifts and catches a sleigh ride to his workshop at the top of the world. Santa decides to raise the boy as an elf, and Papa Elf adopts him as his own. But as “Buddy”—a name derived from the diaper brand he was wearing—grew much taller than fellow elves while his toymaking skills never improved it became apparent that he was human and not an elf at all. Santa bids Buddy goodbye in a “Christmastown” duet, sending him off to New York City in search of his father, Walter, who had given Buddy up for adoption. But when, at first, Walter doubts Buddy’s tale, he heads off to Macy’s, where he’s told Santa hangs out. Buddy meets Jovie, a girl for whom he swoons immediately. They share “A Christmas Song” together.
“Elf” is the latest entry in the Avalon’s annual holiday-season community productions, which director Tim Weigand says is open to anyone who volunteers—adults, teens, and younger kids. It’s a “friends and neighbors” holiday event and major Avalon Foundation fund-raiser.
“We don’t want to turn away any kid who wants to be in our show,” he says, noting that there are 48 children eight years old or younger in “Elf the Musical.” To accommodate them, almost all the roles are double-cast—with Red and Green casts performing on alternate dates, beginning with Red on opening night Friday, Dec. 13.
We sat down with the two lead actors, both attorneys in real life, along with director Weigand at the Avalon’s Stoltz Listening Room upstairs with a view of the Tidewater Inn catercorner across Dover and Harrison streets. It wasn’t snowing outside yet. Both “Buddys” arrived dressed like suit-and-tie attorneys instead of reformed elves.
Red cast Buddy, Will Chapman, and Green cast Buddy, Pat Fitzgerald, describe their interpretation of the title character as not so much clueless as, in Fitzgerald’s words, “He never knew anything else before.” Until departing for Manhattan, he still thought he was just this really tall and awkward elf. He’d never met girls—human girls his age—before Jovie, played by Annie Pokrywka (Red) and Michelle Callahan (Green). But with so much going on in his new life—he meets his half-brother and sister who to his shock, don’t believe in Santa Claus—Buddy forgets he had a date with Jovie. “He learns humility,” says Chapman. “He hurts someone for the first time.” Albeit unintentionally.
For Fitzgerald, the “coolest” part, and what he’s looking forward to most on opening night, is playing opposite his father, Charles, as the real Santa Claus. In “Elf,” Santa doubles as the musical’s narrator, played in the Green cast by John Norton.
Weigand, who’s directed at least a dozen holiday shows for the Avalon—half of them “A Christmas Carols,” but also “Annie” last year, “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”—extolled the work ethic of his too adult-role “rookies.” Neither Fitzgerald nor Chapman had played leading parts before on stage. “Of one hour and 50 minutes,” says Fitzgerald, “we’re on for one hour and 40.”
“I find an economy of words works best,” Weigand says, in directing rookies, either adult or child. “Things like, ‘Feelings add up,’ ‘Work with your partner,’ ‘Act truthfully in imaginary circumstances.’ ” (Next up for Weigand is Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” for Tred Avon Players.)
Most of his amateur actors take preparation seriously, like professionals, Weigand says, rather than just sticking around during rehearsal.
“Every time I walk our dog, I listen to the ‘Elf’ soundtrack,” says Chapman. “I must’ve heard it 100 times.” Fitzgerald runs lines and takes acting tips from his daughter, Katie, who’s a comparative veteran, having done “Annie” last year and now “Elf.”
One thing each Buddy tries to avoid is taking cues from the movie. “Neither one of us is going to be Will Ferrell,” says Fitzgerald.
“I’ve always been curious about it”—performing in a musical—Chapman admits. “It’s awe-inspiring. You can see how much people put into this. I get a rush out of it. Although we’ll see how I feel 10 minutes before the curtain goes up.”
‘Elf the Musical’
7 p.m. Dec.13, 14 and 20, 2 p.m. Dec. 15 and 22, 2 and 4 p.m. Dec. 21, 6 p.m. Dec. 19, Avalon Theater, 40 E. Dover St., Easton. Tickets: $10-$20, $100 for dinner theater (catered by Banning’s Tavern); 410-822-7299
Steve Parks is a retired journalist, arts writer and editor now living in Easton.
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