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The musical version of 'Elf'' takes over Pioneer Theatre stage

Published December 6, 2013 1:28 pm

Stage • Utah company pulls out the stops to bring a big new Christmas musical to life.
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Quinn VanAntwerp is mugging for the camera at the downtown Macy's. It's 8 a.m., two hours before the City Creek store opens, and VanAntwerp is in character as Buddy, for Pioneer Theatre Company's musical "Elf."

Wearing an absurdly perky green velvet elf suit, Buddy leads his love interest, Jovie (Libby Servais), and four child actors to Santa's mailbox, up and down store escalators and through the bedding department, where there's a slight costume crisis with a pin.

The character's pointed green cap and black boots with curly toes make VanAntwerp look even taller than his 6-foot-4-inch height. Even if his thick yellow tights don't quite cover a tattoo on the 27-year-old Northern California native's leg, you'd never guess that he would rather be anywhere else than gallivanting through the mostly empty store with child elves. The actor smiles as he gracefully lifts Jovie under a sparkly sign that reads "Believe," pausing for the trailing photographers to capture the shot.

VanAntwerp will spend the season in the Will Ferrell-sized shoes of "Elf," the new movie-to-Broadway musical adaptation, which opens at Pioneer Theatre on Dec. 6 and plays through Dec. 24.

"We're not trying to do Will Ferrell onstage," says PTC's artistic director Karen Azenberg, who raves about the big singing and dancing numbers and spectacular design elements that draw upon the style of musical theater classics. "Will Ferrell gave an incredible performance, but the reason the movie endures is there's a real story underneath it."

Guest director Dan Knechtges agrees: "Good froth always has depth."

The story of "Elf" is about family, which is why he wanted to direct the Salt Lake City production, says Knechtges, who was nominated for a Tony in 2007 for his choreography for Broadway's "Xanadu." The Cleveland native claims to be a cynic, except at Christmas. "For my family, growing up, Christmas was everything," he says.

With big production numbers, such as "Happy All the Time" and "Sparklejollytwinklejingley," the musical tells the story of Buddy, an orphan who grows up at the North Pole thinking he's an elf. When he discovers the truth, Buddy sets out to find his father. In New York City, Buddy teaches a lot of people to believe in themselves and in Santa Claus. "In a funny way for the show, they go hand-in-hand," Azenberg says. "It triggers all those things that brilliant holiday shows do."

VanAntwerp isn't terribly worried about comparisons to the movie. "You have to let yourself off the hook, because there's only one Will Ferrell," he says. He, too, loves the heart and smart humor of the movie, which became a contemporary Christmas classic after its 2003 release.

Playing an elf is a "different beast to conquer" than VanAntwerp's last role, singing his heart out as Bob Gaudio in the New York, touring and Toronto casts of "Jersey Boys." During his two-year stint in Toronto, he earned acting accolades as well as being named to a list of one of the city's most eligible bachelors — presumably not for the way he looks while wearing green velvet shorts and elf shoes. "He's really meant to play this role, because he's Mr. Optimistic positive" offstage, says Azenberg.

And in the realm of actorly optimism, he seems well-matched with Servais, who described her character as someone who wears her heart on her sleeve, despite having been burned by the men in her life. The actor displayed her own high-wattage of positivity playing the understudy and Glinda in the Broadway and touring casts of "Wicked."

Another notable New York actor in what Azenberg calls "an A-list" cast is Martin Vidnovic, who plays Walter, Buddy's father. Vidnovic received a Best Actor Tony Nomination for "Brigadoon," and was part of Broadway history for sharing a stage with Yul Brynner in "The King And I."

In some ways, bringing Buddy to life is like playing a male version of Glinda, because he's crazy happy all the time, VanAntwerp says, repeating a snippet of the show's lyrics. As rehearsals began, he found his way into the role through his interactions with the cast's child actors, who play elves. "It's just like being 9 years old again," he says.

Now the cast has threaded through most of the store's departments, re-creating scenes from "Elf" while pretending to send letters to Santa and to jump on the store's pretend beds. As he's walking out of the store, VanAntwerp is talking about the nostalgic tone of the musical, but then another idea occurs to the big elf. "We should have a shot of a [store] security guard throwing me out of the store," VanAntwerp says. "That's funny."


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'Nobody Cares About Santa'

The Pioneer Theatre production of the musical "Elf" is based on the Broadway version, which was adapted from the beloved 2003 film. The musical was written by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, with music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin.

When • When • Dec. 6-21 and 23-24; 7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday matinees; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 23; and noon Tuesday, Dec. 24. Extra performances set for 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 26; 2 p.m. Friday, Dec. 27; and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 28.

Tickets • $38-$59 in advance; $5 more on day of show; K-12 students are half-price on Mondays and Tuesdays; $5 early-bird discounts for first seven performances.

Box office • 801-581-6961; http://www.pioneertheatre.org

More • During the run of the show, the theater company will partner with Wells Fargo for a holiday gift drive. Theatergoers are invited to drop off holiday gifts for families served by local nonprofits YWCA Utah, The Road Home and the Utah chapter of Volunteers of America. Needed gifts are listed at CandyCaneCornerSLC.org.