Theater review: Harry Connick Jr.'s 'The Happy Elf' at Montgomery College

By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 10:18 PM

Can the road to Broadway possibly go through Rockville? Harry Connick Jr. hopes so, and his faith is so strong that he showed up at Montgomery College on Saturday night to look at the talent-heavy workshop production of his new kid-friendly musical, "The Happy Elf."

"This is part of the growing process the show is going through," Connick told the crowd during a brief Q-and-A session from the stage after the 70-minute show (no intermission).

"We're trying to be very gentle with it," added director John Rando, sitting next to the famed New Orleans pianist, singer, bandleader and composer.

The musical is based on a jazzy tune called the "The Happy Elf" that Connick wrote for his 2003 Christmas CD, "Harry for the Holidays." That begat a 45-minute animated tale for TV that has been expanded for the stage; the story follows an irrepressibly cheerful elf named Eubie as he: (a) dreams of earning his way onto Santa's sleigh team and (b) tries to bring the Christmas spirit to the surly kids of Bluesville.

Naturally, Connick's score bubbles with New Orleans shuffle and sass. (A guarantee: Viewers will come out humming the infectious, and oft-repeated, refrain of the jaunty title song.) Clint Johnson is a winning Eubie, and it's uncanny how thoroughly he has absorbed Connick's suave vocal style; Johnson was even brave enough to harmonize with Connick as the two sang the ballad "Christmas Day" at the end of Saturday's Q-and-A.

The production, a joint venture of Montgomery College and Glen Echo Park's Adventure Theatre, is well-drilled and glossy; the New York credentials are apparent in the efficient work of director Rando ("Urinetown" on Broadway, "A Fox on the Fairway" at Signature Theatre) and designer Beowulf Boritt ("Rock of Ages," "The Scottsboro Boys"). Boritt's North Pole set boasts some neat puns in shop windows and, with a trick of Andrew R. Cissna's lights, quickly becomes the frigid burg of Bluesville.

The pace is sometimes dreadfully frenetic, though. The cast seemed over-caffeinated Saturday night, racing through the sweetly jokey book as if they'd anxiously been guided to be more animated than the cartoon. The settled, laid-back moments worked best in the wide Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center auditorium (which, though very nice, is nothing like Broadway atmospherically or architecturally).

The material does have some fresh, off-kilter elements, though - most of them in the neatly imagined Bluesville. That's a place where the sun literally don't shine, which leads to the brief and very funny "The Poophole Song." (After the show, Rando told the audience that Connick's note when he e-mailed the director the song was: "I'm serious about this.") Also good is Bluesville's oppressive What factory, where the downtrodden townies manufacture nothing but question marks.

Valerie Issembert is lively and tough as Molly, the surly Goth girl whose angry letter to Santa opens the show, and Elliot Dash lends his rich voice to both Santa and the mayor of Bluesville, who gets a luscious hard-luck song with dark, complicated chords in the chorus. Michael Rupert, a Tony Award winner for the "Sweet Charity" revival in 1986, is on hand to bring a relaxed touch of class to the part of the dyspeptic supervisor elf who is Eubie's nemesis; you can't say the enterprise lacks positive elements.

So as Rando and company tinker in Rockville, you wonder: Is Connick's lullaby-like "Christmas Day," so excellent for silky crooning, dynamic enough to turn the dramatic tide? Will Connick's fabulous gift for creating colorful, infectious musical arrangements get showcased, rather than muted, as it is here? Can the giddy comedy find a stride that consistently invites laughter, rather than insisting on it? "The Happy Elf" already has a hatful of jolly; this workshop should tell if it can be cobbled into real joy.

The Happy Elf Music and lyrics by Harry Connick Jr., book by Lauren Gunderson and Andrew Fishman. Directed by John Rando. Music director, Darius Smith; choreography, Mark Minnick; costumes, Peter J. Zakutansky; sound design, Veronika Vorel. With Zack Colonna, Tina Ghandchilar, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Nova Y. Payton, Priscilla Cuellar, Ally Barrale, Carolyn Caton, Hunter M.A. Kieserman, Melanie Kurstin, Neel Madan, Jonathan E. Miot, Noah Mitchel, Madeleine Schinosi, Grace Sicard, David Benji Weiner and Carl Williams. Through Nov. 28 at Montgomery College's Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center, 51 Mannakee St., Rockville. Call 240-567-5301 or visit www.montgomerycollege.edu/pac.


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