By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Nov 25, 2019 at 7:56 PM

It’s been 16 years since Will Ferrell created the relentlessly cheerful embodiment of childlike wonder and Christmas spirit that is Buddy in the film "Elf." If there’s anything better than re-watching that modern holiday classic on TV, it’s seeing the story retold as a musical at First Stage, in the Todd Wehr Theater, now through Dec. 29.

Because the stage and film have different strengths, some characters have been switched out, and the story has been rearranged a bit for the live version, but the essential message remains the same: Kindness is always the right answer, and the more people who believe in Santa Claus, the better. 

Confidently directed and music directed by Jeff Schaetzke, this production fills the thrust stage completely with 11 adults and 13 young performers singing, dancing and scrambling to get ready for Christmas, while trying to nudge non-believers from the "naughty" to the "nice" list. And it does so with incredible charm, from the pompoms on the tips of the elves’ pointy hats, to the curled ends of their pointy shoes. 

Much of the credit for the show’s success belongs to its star Adam LaSalle, a New York-based actor who imbues Buddy with the optimism, enthusiasm and barely restrained joy of ten magical elves. Gifted with a gorgeous singing voice, the wide eyes of an innocent and a vaudevillian’s knack for comedy, LaSalle is a delight to watch as he tries first to fit in with Santa’s helpers at the North Pole (played by young performers), then with the jaded New Yorkers he meets, and finally with his human father and estranged family. 

Musically strong across the board, the large cast also performs Katelin Zelon’s challenging choreography with precision, from the crush of New Yorkers hurrying down the sidewalk, to Macy’s staff members redecorating the store, to celebrations in Central Park. And while it’s hard to take your eyes off LaSalle, with his goofy smile, bright green elf coat decorated with gold snowflakes, and distinctive green and yellow cap, the full company numbers prove that the supporting cast is also top-notch.

As Mrs. Claus and an overworked secretary, Kelly Doherty absolutely shines. Whether she is gossiping into her headset, succumbing to Buddy’s infectious holiday glee, or reacting to her curmudgeonly, workaholic boss Walter (a blustery Alan Ball), Doherty is there with a sly smile, a dance step or a deadpan one-liner. As the disillusioned Macy’s elf and downtrodden city dweller Jovie, Rachel Whyte is similarly enchanting, particularly in the superhuman feat of clumsily ice skating (well, roller blading) through an entire duet on her first date with Buddy. And though the character claims she never sings, Whyte’s voice fills the theater with a strong, warm soprano. 

As Buddy’s skeptical step-mom Emily, Natalie Ford does a nice reversal from believing the giant elf who arrives at her door is a lunatic, to believing wholeheartedly in Santa and the gang. Her duets with son Michael (a precocious Alex Radke in the "Sparklejolly" cast I saw) are heartwarming without being saccharine. Their voices blend seamlessly in "I’ll Believe in You" and "There is a Santa Claus," as they both long for a more meaningful connection with husband/dad Walter and the spirit of the season. 

As a Santa of the modern age, Steve Watts walks a fine line between being jolly and completely worn out. This St. Nick struggles with Tivo-ing the football game, checks his iPad for lists of presents and has rewired the sleigh to run on holiday spirit instead of reindeer power (after complaints from PETA). It’s another opportunity for Buddy, and the audience, to rescue someone from the brink of cynicism when we all affirm that we believe.

Like an animated store window, the "Elf" set – designed by Kristin Ellert – is full of magical holidays surprises. The young cast members turn pages of an enormous storybook on the set’s balcony to establish which scenes are in New York, which are at the North Pole, and when Buddy is in transit between the two. Panels that stretch across the back wall of the stage turn easily to transform the space from office to home to a department store. Costumes by Melissa Torchia are bland grays and khakis at the publishing company where Walter leads his lackadaisical staff at their computer keyboards. But the North Pole elves are clad in traditional red and green, with a dash of cool – a cacophony of bright plaids and stripes complement Santa’s cherry red overalls.

Another ambitious musical for First Stage, "Elf" is an accomplishment for the company and a treat for area audiences.

A final perhaps cautionary note to parents: At two and a half hours with one intermission, "Elf" is substantially longer than normal First Stage fare, and it has several PG-rated lines designed to entertain adults instead of kids, so it may not be an ideal holiday outing for very young children. In addition, the story has many characters who say they don’t believe in Santa, and one musical number filled with out-of-work "mall Santas" in various states of disarray, so this might be confusing for the under-six set of true believers.