I’m not a big fan of Christmas media: movies, music, plays, musicals. On the surface, that’s not a big surprise as I’m Jewish and Christmas is not my holiday. From the day after Holloween nowadays, we’re saturated with the commercial and sentimental message of the holiday, with its underlying message of buy, buy, buy. Perhaps Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer had it right after all … but I digress.
Still, there are a few properties in each media category that I like. I’m enamored of Peter Paul and Mary’s Christmas Dinner, because I think that’s the message of the day. I love A Mulholland Christmas Carol and wish it would be done again. But much of what is out there is sentimental claptrap or remountings of classics (such as the recent production of Miracle on 34th Street at Actors Co-Op). Recently, two musicals have emerged as Christmas perennials. One we saw in 2017: A Christmas Story. The other is Elf: The Musical, with book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, Music by Matthew Sklar, and Lyrics by Chad Beguelin, based on the 2003 movie written by David Berenbaum. I could easily see Elf becoming one of those holiday musicals I actually like, as it is a whole lot of fun, has great music, and a wonderful non-religious and non-commercial message.
Elf basically tells the story of Buddy the Elf. As an infant, after his single mother died, he crawled into Santa’s bag and was taken by mistake to the North Pole. He was raised by the elves to be one of them, even after he grew to be six feet tall. One day, he learns he is human and journeys to New York City to meet his dad, who has no Christmas spirit. He does, and as they say, hijinks ensure. He gets a job as an elf at Macy*s, and falls in love with a cynical “elf” Jovie. He destroys his dad’s office. But this is all done with childish joy and innocence, as Buddy has never really grown up and is the embodiment of a child’s Christmas spirit and belief. When Santa gets stranded in NYC due to the lack of Christmas spirit, of course it is Buddy to the rescue. Cue the closures of the story lines and the happy ending that is required.
Although there are numerous productions of Elf in Southern California this time of year, we saw the production at Canyon Theatre Guild in Santa Clarita/Newhall. To understand CTG, you need to understand the tiers of theatres in So Cal. There are the big boys that have the tours and are typically all Equity (although the Pantages does some non-Equity tours). There are the mid-size houses that are all Equity. There are the intimate theatres, some of whom use Equity contracts and some Equity actors (as REP was, down the street from CTG, when it was in existance); there are others that eschew Equity’s BS and use only non-Equity actors (who are typically rising actors, or actors from film/TV (SAG/AFTRA)). Community theatre is a step below that: theatre performed by a mix of community members who just love to act, and in SoCal, actors from the cadre of non-Equity and film/TV actors who like to exercise their craft on stage. As a result, the quality of the performances at CTG can be mixed: you have some performers who are seasoned vets who bring their “A” game to the show, and you have the teacher, printer, or student that may flub a line, miss a step, or be focused too much on getting the moves right to inhabit or create a background character. But you know, going in, these folks are up on the stage because they love it, and they are giving all their heart.
With this mix, the directing team (in this case, Barry Agin (FB) and Timben Boydston (FB)) had their hands full. They had to come up with the overall design of the production. They had to work with the actors to bring out and shape the characters — and with community theatre actors that can be a bit more work. They had to ensure the evenness of the performances and ensure that the characters created were true to what was on the written page. Lastly, they had to do this while ensuring that everyone was having fun, because you’re not in community theatre to make the tens and tens of dollars that those big-time actors in LA’s intimate theatres make. I’m pleased to say that Barry and Timben achieved these goals: this was a fun production with easily overlooked imperfections, with actors that generally did a great job.
But there is one primary reason for the success of this show — and that reason is the same reason we chose this production out of all the productions of Elf in Southern California that we could see: George Chavez (FB). We’ve seen George in numerous productions throughout the years at REP, when it existed up the street; in Simi Valley; and at other theatres in LA. He brings a wonderful enthusiasm and manic energy to his roles; a tender craziness. George wasn’t just playing Buddy the Elf — George was Buddy the Elf. He brought a child’s wonder and sense of playfulness to the role, he brought the manic energy of an elf, as well as the innocence. He made you believe in the Christmas spirit through that energy. If you know George in real life, you know that he is also a teacher — and his performance here made it clear why his students must love love him, and why he finds joy in that other aspect of his life. This enthusiasm for whatever he does — whatever role or profession he is in — can’t be faked. He is successful as a teacher because he loves that. He is successful as an actor because he loves that. And, as this performance demonstrated, he was successful as Buddy the Elf because he brings the love for anything Christmas that is inside Buddy to the stage, beams it out to the audience, and literally becomes that character while on stage. His enthusiasm and joy was such that it raised up all the other actors, and smoothed over the rough edges that community theatre might have. I’m sure this joy was also broadcast backstage and set the tone for the entire company.
But George’s Buddy wasn’t the only impressive talent on the CTG stage. I was also impressed with Christina Afetian (FB) Jovie. Afetian brought some wonderful character to the role, had a winning smile, and most importantly: a winning voice. She did a spectacular job on “A Christmas Song”, and was just a joy to watch.
Buddy’s human family was also very strong, in particular Ally Loprete (FB) Emily Hobbs and Jack Anderson Michael Hobbs. Loprete brought a great personality and a very strong voice to her role; Anderson was strong as the brother and handled the character well. Jeff Vincent (FB) Walter Hobbs was strong performance-wise as the father, bringing just the right sense of Christmas indifference to the role. However, at our performance, his voice was a bit tired by the end of the evening — if I had to guess, he had an ill-timed cold. Happens to all of us, and I wish we could have seen him in stronger form.
In terms of the other characters, Anna Rast (FB) Deb had a strong voice and brought a unique personality to the character. Also bringing a strong voice and some standout personality was Noemi Vaca (FB) Charlotte in her various ensemble roles.
Rounding out the cast were: Eduardo Arteaga (FB) Santa Claus, Jackson Caruso (FB) Matthews / Ensemble; Peyton Copley Ensemble; Erin Davis (FB) Sara / Ensemble; Kaitlyn Davis Ensemble; Molly Davis Ensemble; Greyson Foster (⭐FB) Charlie / Ensemble; Ellen Guinn Ensemble; Calvin Hayward Ensemble; Doug Holiday (FB) Vinny the Policeman / Ensemble; Harmony Jefferson Ensemble; La’a Jefferson (FB) Ensemble; Haileigh Johnson Ensemble; Kelly Johnson Mrs. Claus / Ensemble; Jefferson Lanz (FB) Sam / Ensemble; Hannah May LEPoidevin (FB) Ensemble; Sam Kort (FB) Ensemble; Jeff Lucas (FB) Bad Santa / Ensemble; John Morris (FB) Ensemble; Grace Morrison Ensemble; Katrina Negrete (FB) Ensemble; Christopher Passalacqua (FB) Chadwick / Ensemble; Cora Pengelly Ensemble; Eva Pengelly Ensemble; Christopher Robbin Mr. Greenway; Emma Shean Ensemble; Owen Shean Ensemble; Griffin Siroky (FB) Ensemble; Katelyn Taylor Tiara / Ensemble; and Jeremiah True (FB) Manager.
The music, alas, was recorded.
Choreography was by Melanie Lee (FB), who did a great job considering the range of dance talent she had to work with.
Turning to the production and creative side: The set design by Doug Holiday (FB) and John Alexopoulos (FB) wasn’t fancy, but worked well for the CTG stage (especially considering the limited budget CTG has to work with). Long-time REP regular Steven “Nanook” Burkholder (FB) provided sound design and appropriate sound effects. Mike Davis (FB) and Michael T. Smith (FB)’s lighting design did a satisfactory job of establishing place and time. The costume design by Jean Paletz (FB) and Jill McGlynn (FB) was appropriately Christmas-y; the elf costumes were cute. Rounding out the credits: Margo Caruso (FB) Asst. Director; Carla Bellefeuille (FB) Vocal Director; Michael T. Smith (FB) Props / Set Dresser; Keri Pierson (FB) Stage Manager; Nicole Arteaga (FB) Props / Set Dresser. Timben Boydston (FB) is the Executive and Artistic Director of CTG.
Alas, Monday was the last performance of Elf at CTG. Perhaps George will do it at a future venue.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
We have no more live theatre scheduled in 2019. We will be seeing a movie on Christmas Day.
Looking to early 2020: most of the January is currently quiet, but the middle of the month is busy, with What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, and Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the third weekend, and Cirque Éloize at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the last weekend. Things start heating up in February, with The Last Ship (with Sting) at the Ahmanson Theatre the first weekend; A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB) the third weekend; and (whew!) The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. March comes in like a lamb, with the first two weekends (2/29 and 3/7) being quiet… but goes out like a Lion. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner (and possibly The Wild Party at Morgan Wixson); the 3rd Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last bringing Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) and the MoTAS/TBH Seder. April is similarly busy: the 1st weekend is Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); the 2nd is during Pesach and is open (but has Count Basie at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the Thursday before); the 3rd is Once on This Island at the Ahmanson Theatre; the last is Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) (and possibly Hands on a Hardbody at the Charles Stewart Howard Playhouse (FB)), and the first weekend of May is Mean Girls at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB)
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!