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PTC’s latest brimming with ‘Elf’-confidence

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Ira Kramer as Buddy the Elf in PTC's "Elf: The Musical." Ira Kramer as Buddy the Elf in PTC's "Elf: The Musical." (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2018)

BANGOR – There’s a new elf in town – and good luck keeping him on a shelf.

Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest holiday production is “Elf: The Musical,” based on the Will Ferrell film of the same name, with book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, lyrics by Chad Beguelin and music by Matthew Sklar. This production, directed and choregraphed by Ethan Paulini with music direction by Larrance Fingerhut, runs at the Bangor Opera House through December 30.

It’s a madcap romp that follows a young man who ventures forth on a journey to find out who he really is, leaving behind an idyllic life at the North Pole to track down his father and discover just where he might fit in the wider world. It is a journey for which he is both utterly ill-equipped and uniquely well-suited – figuratively and literally.

Buddy (Ira Kramer) is an elf living at the North Pole. He and his elf friends (an adorable cohort made up of Stella Burns, Mara Geagan, Kai Grosjean, Maia Johnson, Joseph Rutledge and Cuthbert Steadman) spend their days building toys at the behest of Santa (Ben Layman). But Buddy is … different. He’s not that great at making toys, for one thing. For another, he’s more than twice the size of the other elves. Still, Santa and the elves go out of their way to make him feel special.

Until one day, Buddy inadvertently discovers the truth – he’s not an elf at all. He’s a human. When he was a baby, he crawled into Santa’s sack and was accidentally transported back to the North Pole. The elves raised him as one of their own, but deep down, they all knew the time would come for him to be among his own people.

Santa reveals to Buddy that his mother is gone, but that his father lives in New York City. So off he goes, a wide-eyed naif set loose in a place that he doesn’t understand. He finds his way to the offices of Greenway Publishing, a company that produces children’s books – and that employs his father, Walter Hobbs (Frank Bachman). The existence of Buddy comes as a complete surprise to Walter; Walter’s wife Emily (Brianne Beck) and son Michael (Nathan Manaker) are equally shocked.

At one point, Buddy stumbles into a department store. Dressed in his full elf regalia, he is mistaken by the store manager (Jen Shepard) for a corporate plant and so placed in charge of the preparations for the store’s Santa visit the next day. It’s here that Buddy first lays eyes on Jovie (Grace Livingston Kramer), a store elf who is more than a little disillusioned with her life in the city – particularly during the holiday.

Slowly, these people warm to this aggressively cheerful newcomer. While Walter remains skeptical, Emily and especially Michael open their hearts to him. Walter’s secretary Deb (A.J. Mooney) is particularly charmed. And Jovie, despite reservations of her own, is drawn to the relentless positivity put forth by Buddy.

It’s never that easy, though. Walter’s boss Mr. Greenway (Arthur Morison) has laid down a hard deadline for a new Christmas-themed book – and Walter’s job is on the line if he can’t come up with something big. And Buddy – bless his heart – finds a way to screw it all up.

And so, with Christmas looming, it’s up to Buddy to find a way to make everyone – the Hobbs family, Jovie, even Santa – happy. He has to save Christmas.

While “Elf: The Musical” doesn’t have the track record of most holiday classics, it’s tough to argue against its rapidly burgeoning reputation as a modern Christmas staple. It’s a story that resonates with all ages, with the perfect blend of slapstick and sentimentality. It is goofy and genuine, packed with silly jokes and sweet messages. Oh, and the songs are super catchy as well.

So much of the positive energy inherent to “Elf: The Musical” springs from the performers on the stage. Unsurprisingly, one needs the titular elf to lead the way in that regard. It’s a task that Ira Kramer was seemingly born to take on; his broad smile and fearless physicality pave the way for him to embody Buddy beautifully. Vocally, physically, emotionally – Kramer nails it on all accounts. His childlike wonder is infectious; you can feel his joyful energy in the back row. He IS Buddy the Elf.

But he’s not alone up there. Oh no – he has plenty of help. Ben Layman is outstanding as Santa; people don’t necessarily understand how difficult a character that is to properly capture, but Layman does it with equal parts jollity and snark. Jovie comes vividly alive in Grace Livingston Kramer’s capable hands; she shines brightly every moment she’s on stage, whether she’s happy, sad or somewhere in-between. Frank Bachman is a grumpy delight as Walter, giving real depth and nuance to the oft-oversimplified “overworked dad” archetype. Brianne Beck lays down the cool mom vibes throughout, while Nathan Manaker captures the loneliness of a boy who just wants more time with his dad. Arthur Morison embraces his inner jerk as Mr. Greenway, while Jen Shepard puts her considerable comedic chops on display as the store manager and A.J. Mooney brings her inimitable charm and goofball grace to her portrayal of Deb.

All that, plus phenomenal character work from the rest of the ensemble. Robert Brangwynne, Molly Hagerty, Fredrick Sawyer, Alekzander Sayers and Michelle Weatherbee are tasked with creating multiple characters to fill out the world being created. It would be a daunting task for a group twice that size, yet this group proves more than capable. Every one of them has moments where they add a necessary spark to the proceedings; it’s a truly talented group. And of course, the kids – Stella Burns, Mara Geagan, Kai Grosjean, Maia Johnson, Joseph Rutledge and Cuthbert Steadman. They are an absolute delight whenever they appear on stage, a charming crew possessed of stage presence beyond their relatively few years.

Director/choreographer Ethan Paulini has shown his knack for spectacle in previous PTC outings such as “The Full Monty” and “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” He brings that skill set to bear in yet another holiday outing. His ability to create broad and kinetic stage pictures is apparent in the large production numbers, but he also knows how to take advantage of quieter moments. Shows like this are best when they work on both the macro and micro level, a balancing act at which Paulini excels.

Music director Larrance Fingerhut has once again put together a dynamite pit band, with Cliff Guthrie on woodwinds, Phil Kell on bass, Tom Libby on percussion, Brian Nadeau on trumpet and Fingerhut himself on keyboard. It’s a tight group, one ideally suited to mastering the ebb and flow of the show’s music. As per usual, there’s some serious musicianship up there.

As for the design side of things, it’s another crackerjack effort from the PTC team. Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay return to work their scenic/costume design magic; the set is a big, bright wonder of constantly moving parts, while the costumes are vivid and imaginative (Buddy’s elf costume is spectacular, just for example). Scout Hough continues her ongoing run of lighting design excellence with this one; the intricacies necessary to make this show work lighting-wise must be staggering, yet she handles it all with aplomb. Sound designer Sean McGinley once more deftly handles the tricky acoustics of the Bangor Opera House, while Meredith Perry’s prop designs are as apt as ever.

“Elf: The Musical” might not be what immediately leaps to mind when you think about a holiday classic, but mark my words – that’s going to change, and sooner than you know. It’s heartfelt, hilarious and jammed to the brim with joy.

It is, dare I say, sparklejollytwinklejingley.

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