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The Barter Blog

Elf: The Musical Review

November 17, 2018

A Review by Zach Cooley

An annual Christmas tradition that I have been able to continue with my wife and mother for the third year in a row is to see an incredible Christmas play at the Barter Theater. I am only able to continue this tradition thanks to the most generous marketing department and my dear friend Richard Rose, artistic director of the Barter Theater in Abingdon. Because of their kindness, I'm able to give my mother a one of a kind Christmas gift. There are so few people in the world who get to experience the rare and tremendous talent of Barter Theatre actors that has continued the legacy of Wythe County born Robert Porterfield for the last 85 years. I am eternally grateful to the Barter Theatre staff for making this happen for me, and I pray that it is a tradition that I can do for years to come.

Elf: The Musical continued that tradition in usual five-star fashion based on the now-classic holiday film starring Will Ferrell and written by David Berenbaum. The new musical written by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin with music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, is seen in a new, funnier, and more in-depth light than ever before. The costumes designed by Lee Alexander Martin were an absolute highlight throughout the entire show. That is also thanks in part to wig and makeup designer Whitney Kaibel. I've had the pleasure of meeting director Suzanne Boulle previously and can tell you that she has truly outdone herself with this production. The ensemble is enormous, and even though you are aware that several people are playing several parts, they do it so well that it seems to be a full-on Broadway production. I'm sure it is every bit as good as what could be seen in New York City. The costumes and sets of the show are so vibrant and colorful that it makes the play itself seem almost magical. Set designer Hana Lee is another brilliant addition to the behind-the-scenes staff as is the fantastic choreography of former Barter actor Ashley Campos and tap choreographer, who also is an excellent actor, Andrew Hampton Livingston.

Then, we come to the brilliant cast. The show stars Zacchaeus Kimball as Buddy, which was a no-brainer for the over-the-top elf who comes to New York City from the North Pole to meet his human father, played by Nick Koesters, who portrays Walter Hobbs in his usual hilarious curmudgeon style. His wife, played by Hannah Ingram, represents the perfect, sensible mother, despite usually being cut out for the villainess roles, which was a pleasant departure from how we often see her.

All the Barter company actors are talented in their own way, but I must confess that Rick McVey is not my top pick of the performers. That being said, he was excellent in the role of Santa, and I must say I enjoyed the irreverence with which he played it. It added to the adult humor that was segued into the play in a brilliant manner of double entendre to delight the adults but not offend the children. Another excellent aspect of the play was the implementation of the stage crew as assistant elves and dancing Christmas trees, which could happily wonder on stage mid-scene and clear away the props. This added to both the comedy and efficiency of the play, as there were 18 scenes to be performed in two and a half hours, which kept the crew on a constant move. Mary Lucy Bivins was the perfect Mrs. Claus and made some great cameos as the Chinese restaurant waitress and the dog walker that garnered the biggest laugh in the play. As Buddy and Jovie are arguing amidst a New York park, Mary Lucy comes walking along with her pink poodle in tow, which stops to relieve itself amid the argument. The people were laughing so loud that the dialogue had to be halted until it calmed down.

Since we were there on the opening night of November 16th, I'm interested to see what will be changed in the play. As far as I can see, it was pretty flawless as is. This set is brilliantly outlined as an Etch A Sketch and the sleigh in which Rick McVey was lowered onto the stage by cables, and then whisked away on the same set of wires off stage, was absolutely ingenious. I also have to give a nod to the incredible youth actors of the play, led by Parker Gray as Michael Hobbs, who were brilliant if they had lines and just plain adorable if they didn't. Other youth cast members were Connor Gray, Gracie Bostic, and Millie Rainero. Another character I enjoyed was Paris Broadstreet as Walter Hobbs’s secretary Deb. Then, there was Sarah Laughland, who was even more brilliant as Jovie then she was as Judy in White Christmas last year. In both plays, Sarah stood out as the beautiful star, this time doing a fabulous job portraying the cold and unreachable, broken girl with the fantastic voice, whose heart is melted by the young male elf. She is a joy to watch in every way and is a real star on all levels.

I must give one final mention to some of my favorite Barter actors, who always deliver without fail. Justin Tyler Lewis was amazing as everyone from Mother Ginger in the opening elf scene, to the disgruntled department store manager in the wildest suits I have ever seen. He also plays the dumbfounded twenty-something in the audience that is convinced Santa is real when Buddy reveals that, in Christmas 1989, he was given a red Schwinn bicycle with a bell shaped like Miss Piggy. Sean Maximo Campos is always a show within himself whether he is an angry Santa performing a choreographed number with the other fake Santa's in the Chinese restaurant, an extra giving a facial expression in front of a TV camera, or dancing the robot in the background. His body language and expressiveness steals the scene every time. Not a fan of musicals, Emily's favorite part was seeing her favorite, Michael Poisson, loitering about the set and talking to himself as the town drunk in Central Park. He was also excellent has the evil boss, Mr. Greenway.

From all facets, Elf: The Musical is one you must see to make this holiday season unforgettable. It will run through the Christmas holiday and wrap up the 2018 season.