I doubt that a stage version of the 2003 movie comedy Elf was at the top of anybody's holiday wish list, but the family-friendly new Broadway musical is a surprisingly diverting confection that's a sleigh-length ahead of recent seasonal fare on the Great White Way (e.g., White Christmas in 2008 and 2009). Even the biggest Cotton-Headed-Ninny-Muggins is bound to leave the Al Hirschfeld Theatre with a festive glow.
The movie, of course, benefited from a memorable comic turn by Will Ferrell as Buddy, an orphaned human raised by elves on the North Pole who belatedly seeks out his grinch of a dad in New York City. It's a hard act to follow. Relative newcomer Sebastian Arcelus has the right blend of antic innocence for the role, though his modest singing voice and lower wattage suggest he's less an above-the-title leading man than an apt choice for a made-for-DVD Elf sequel.
Composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin (who collaborated on another movie-based musical, 2006's The Wedding Singer) may not have produced any new holiday standards, but they offer a stockingful of pleasantly melodic tunes like the jazzy second act opener, "Nobody Cares About Santa." Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin's book remains mostly faithful to the movie while adding a few humorous modern flourishes (including a Charlie Sheen joke). Some of the show's narrative departures, though, are unfortunate: The first-act finale, in which Buddy goofs up and gets rejected by his real dad (Mark Jacoby), feels too abrupt and makes Buddy seem more callous and immature than he really is.
The sugarplummy supporting cast includes Cheers veteran George Wendt (as a wizened, wisecracking Santa), a nicely sarcastic Amy Spanger (as Buddy's unlikely and underdeveloped love interest), and a strong-voiced Matthew Gumley (as Buddy's much younger half-brother). Elf is a modest show with modest charms, but director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps the production humming along, particularly in the fleeter second act. One can imagine the show having a second life in high schools and regional theaters (visions of licensing fees will no doubt be dancing in the creators' heads). For now, though, Buddy and his pals seem very much at home on Broadway. B
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)