Jolly Young Elves
The kids are thronged on the floor, their little legs folded up in what my DeSoto elementary teachers used to call “Indian style,” and the grown-ups whisper excitedly about whether Harry Connick Jr., might be in Crown Center this very moment. The Coterie has a piano at stage left, they reason, and he penned the music and lyrics for The Happy Elf, a Christmas musical that was supposed to have world-premiered about five minutes back. So who’s to say he might not pop in? Why wouldn’t he appear, make with the razzle-dazzle, maybe flash that bruiser’s smile and pug’s physique that make him come off like a tough guy even when he’s writing songs called — no shit — “Two Scoops of Christmas”?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The adults jockeying for the limited theater seats were running out of luck: Opening night was sold out. The Coterie’s staff shepherded and arranged the kids on the floor, which was harder to do after some S.O.L. grown-ups started squatting among the 10-year-olds, obscuring the Santa’s Workshop set behind adult-sized heads and asses. The Coterie folks weren’t having it. With a full house bustling impatiently, they took the time to rearrange the grown-ups, too.
Ten seconds of Googling had informed me that Connick was in Glasgow, Scotland, so I was there for the show, which concerns the efforts of a North Pole elf named Eubie to lug the spirit of Christmas to Bluesville, a town one-horse in size but four-bar in tune. As soon as the script whisks us there, the mayor of Bluesville (played by the invaluable Danny Cox) treats us to the freshest blues I’ve heard in Kansas City in years. The story, familiar from a thousand Christmas cartoons, is off-the-rack Rankin-Bass: Elf steps out, elf gets in trouble, elf gets saved by the powers of friendship and, less specifically, Christmas.
Somehow, through the music, performances and general cheer, this coal gets squeezed into something like a diamond. Missy Koonce’s choreography is a jingle goof, and Connick’s music, performed by a live jazz trio led by pianist Molly Jessup, is tart and infectious. Still, it wanders widely for inspiration, avoiding cliché — not one number peters out with that halftime piano chorus of “Jingle Bells” that’s ended every yuletide blues since Charles Brown’s “Merry Chirstmas, Baby.”
The title song, which opens the show, peaks with elves dueting on trombone and Eubie limboing beneath the slides. Michael Dragen, as a backbench elf named Ham, talk-sings the Sinatra-style “That Magic Hat” into a tour de force complete with a big Broadway finish, and Jessalyn Kincaid, also an elf, delivers the ballad “Try” with winsome respect. It’s appropriate: At first, “Try” sounds like “Smile,” but it quickly wells into something lighter and better, a gentle show tune worthy of the pantheon.
Even “Two Scoops” works. It sounds like a bad idea, but when you actually hear it, in context, it doesn’t sound that bad at all. With a dash of satire and a tickling swing, it’s a jovial little ersatz standard made into full-blown fun by K.C. Comeux, our happy elf, and Daria LeGrand. Playing Molly, a miserable little girl in one of those miserable little towns that show up in miserable little Christmas shows, the preteen LeGrand resists at first, her face souring up at lines about our collective need for — yikes — “a sackful of Santa.” Somehow, though, as Comeux barrels on with it, so unrelenting in his happy elvishness that he melts our icy little Molly.
He got me, too. This miserable little Christmas show ain’t miserable at all. Comeaux, Kincaid and Dragen spread their Christmas cheer as thick as the cheese at Don Chilito’s, but that cheer, thank the God that Andrew Fishman’s script never mentions, is high-quality. Director Jeff Church lets Comeux mug wildly, but Comeux is playing a mugger, an elf who never stops trying to buck up everyone’s spirits. His dimples cut deep, and his face seems equipped with more malleable flesh than one should normally have. Still, he’s never hammy or narcissistic in that Jim Carrey way. Even when he’s reduced to a sorry bit of play with a whoopee cushion, Comeux is breezy fun. So are Jessica Dressler, in her roles as various Bluesville citizens, and sixth-grader Cooper J. Scott, who is marvelous play-acting the shame and pain of a wedgie.
Fishman’s book, though uninspired in plotting, sparkles in many specifics. Eubie spouts impressive streams of nonsense. Bluesville’s chief industry, we learn, is the What Factory, a place that manufactures all of the world’s question marks. Every time the fun lets up and that old plot kicks back in, we brace ourselves for vague pronouncements about the meaning of Christmas; instead, a song kicks in. We tap, we nod, we clap and we laugh — but not as much as the kids do.