The main thing to know about “Elf the Musical” is that it makes the 2003 Will Ferrell movie look nuanced. This hyperactive version of the popular film is as over-sugared as Ferrell’s syrup-guzzling character was, only with new songs played at breakneck pace. It’s like watching brightly colored exclamation points hop around the stage for 2 1 / 2 hours.
The Kennedy Center Opera House is a big stocking to stuff, and what this touring “Elf” offers is easy access for audiences young and old. “Elf” buffs will get more or less the high-energy hijinks they bargained for, and nobody expects it to be “Guys and Dolls.”
The “Elf” plot, you’ll recall, follows Ferrell’s character, Buddy, as he grows up comically bigger than his elf pals and jollier than all of them combined, then treks to New York to find his real dad (a cranky publisher of children’s books, played on screen by tough guy James Caan). Some of the movie’s shtick has made it onstage, but some basic elements don’t translate well. The elves, for instance: The awkward solution here is a dancing chorus in knee pads.
Buddy frolicking in a revolving door, Santa stranded in Central Park because naughty New Yorkers don’t believe — these are the types of touchstones that book writers Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin keep. Gone is the small-statured hot-shot kids’ book writer played by Peter Dinklage in the movie, as well as the soundtrack of standards from the likes of Louis Prima and Ella Fitzgerald. A locker-room duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was one of the nicest bits in the film.
The new score by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin might bring its own brand of swinging, upbeat charm if the songs weren’t so loud and fast. The show sounds desperate to entertain, as numbers such as “Christmastown” and “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” keep coming on in the same high key of hard-sell pizzazz. (The orchestra is only nine players: three horns, three reeds, two keyboards and a percussionist. The music sounds big but flavorless.)
There are tantalizing exceptions, especially an inspired number featuring forlorn department-store Santas. The fake Nicks sing a bluesy, jazzy tune as they lick their wounds over cheap Chinese food, and the stylish angst of Connor Gallagher’s choreography is almost the best part of the joke. “Never Fall In Love,” a ballad for Jovie (Buddy’s love interest), also appeals as a rare tune that at least begins with verve, even if it ends in overdrive.
Director Sam Scalamoni’s production, with a lot of flat scenery by Christine Peters, is visually chintzy in its renderings of North Pole workshops and Manhattan skylines. It’s hard to describe the performances when the enterprise is so cartoonish; the actors all seem capable, yet they rarely get an opportunity to display much personal appeal.
That even goes for the plucky Will Blum, whose bright smile and sunny deliveries never flag as the elf-at-heart Buddy. The idea is for Buddy’s innocence to soften the cynicism that plagues his busy dad and the tough but vulnerable girl, but too many jokes and moments get lost in the sheer noise and pace. The show might not want to be anything more than a big silly toy, but it doesn’t spin. It’s wound too tight.
book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Directed by Sam Scalamoni. Choreographed by Connor Gallagher. Costumes, Gregg Barnes; lights, Paul Miller; sound design, Shannon Slaton. With Larry Cahn, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Lanene Charters, Ken Clement, Laurent Giroux, Julia Louise Hosack, Noah Marlowe, Kevyn Morrow, Jen Bechter, Darren Biggart, Giovanni Bonaventura, Erick Buckley, Elizabeth Burton, Audrey Cardwell, Drew Franklin, George Franklin, Karen Hyland, Paul Ianniello, Eric Anthony Johnson, Chandon Jones, Drew King, Julie Kotarides, Andrew Kruep, and Emily Larger. About 2 1 / 2 hours. Through Jan. 5 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets $35-$150. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.