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The Barter Blog

Elf: The Musical — Believe in the Magic

November 22, 2018

A Review by Bonny Gable

November 22, 2018

If you wrote a letter to Santa, what would you ask for? A new world, or a new life? Just a little hope, wonder, or even magic? Well, you can have all of that — for a little while at least. Barter Theatre’s Elf: The Musical will carry you away into a magical wonderland that will make a believer of you. Because we all long to engage in a child’s wonderment, to view the Christmas season through a child’s eyes. Even one who is 30 years old. And an elf.

Buddy the Elf has a spectacular reincarnation in this marvelous stage adaptation of the 2003 film by David Berenbaum. With book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguilin, the beloved, bumbling toy-maker from the North Pole inspires an explosion of action, comedy, song and dance that exhilarates your very soul.

In “The Story of Buddy,” told by Santa himself, many years ago baby Buddy crawled into Santa’s sack one Christmas Eve and accidentally arrived at the North Pole. Instantly smitten, the Elves keep him to raise as one of their own. Now, to his utter astonishment, Buddy discovers he is human and Santa charges him with returning to New York City to find his real father. Buddy’s journey is fraught with both joy and despair as he finds that people no longer believe in Santa and that human relationships are complicated. But Buddy’s resilient nature and determination win out as he unites his family and restores everyone’s belief in the spirit of Christmas.

Zacchaeus Kimbrell gives a masterful performance as the endearing Buddy. From the moment he steps onstage he snags your heart and you are hooked! He is a delightful, spun sugar Teddy bear with the fun-loving cleverness of a fox and the comic timing of a Vaudevillian jester. Kimbrell also has a magnificent singing voice and his vocal versatility shines with the brightness of the North Star.

Nick Koesters provides a powerful and thoughtful portrayal of Walter, Buddy’s long-lost workaholic father. Giving perfectly allotted attention to both Walter’s angst and his sensitivity, Koesters again demonstrates an incredible range as an actor. Owen Griffith, a promising young talent with a beautiful singing voice, is wonderful as Michael, Buddy’s younger half-brother. His duet with mother Emily, played gracefully by Hannah Ingram, is one of the most touching moments in the show.

Sarah Laughland is superb as the tough but gorgeous Jovie (who secretly has a heart of gold.) Her fantastic voice reverberating in “Never Fall in Love (With and Elf)” is just glorious. As for the remainder of the cast, this has got to be one of the hardest-working ensembles in a musical, ever. The demands are so widely varied but each actor plays all of their roles effortlessly, sometimes switching characters – and costumes – so fast it feels like . . . well, magic! Santa’s Elves have an infectious vitality, working in ensemble with devoted synergy. The Fake Santas make up a most unique and entertaining ensemble all their own. Their hilarious “Nobody Cares About Santa” production number takes down the house!

Director Susanne Boulle has many reasons to be proud of the fantastic show that has come to fruition under her guidance. It is the quintessential holiday treat that is as entertaining as it is uplifting. Although the story is a gentle one for children with a happy ending, there are loads of laughs with many one-liners sprinkled throughout for adults to enjoy.

Costume designer Lee Alexander Martin has outdone himself creating out-of-this-world costumes for the Elves. Like vintage glass ornaments, each is a unique confection of glittering color and textures. It’s as if each elf decorated themselves bit by bit over the years — adding dashes of glitz and their favorite things — until their distinctive personality springs forth in an outfit that takes on a life of its own. But that’s not all. Many beautiful and whimsical touches appear in all of the costumes to the delight of our eyes and the distinction of each character. And the wigs! Whitney Kaibel’s finesse and ingenuity with wig design makes them the ‘crowning glory’ of each costume ensemble. Not only are the Elves’ cotton candy coifs fantastic to behold, but the wide variety of wigs adorning the heads of countless humans are a stunning achievement in hair styling.

Huge applause goes to set designer Hana Lee for all the magical settings in this splendid wonderland. Taking a cue from nature — the lighted snowflakes on the floor, snowflake gears in Santa’s toy shop, snow falling on the stage and in animated backdrops — snow is a running theme in this stage magic, and rightly so. That frozen water can fall on us from sky, yet do so gently and delightfully, is a kind of magic. Capture just one snowflake on the tongue and take note of your response. But Lee has a vivid imagination as well, expressing the essence of each locale in stylized backdrops and set pieces, such as my favorite: a giant Etch A Sketch that engulfs the entire stage. Andrew Morehouse’s lighting design flawlessly enhances the total look of the scenes, using beautiful colors and carefully selected focus. The lively animations on the backdrop that move the action along are amazingly effective.

Choreographer Ashley Campos has done a phenomenal job creating dance numbers for this show. She demonstrates incredible creativity and has infused tireless vitality into her dancers. The movements of every number are an impeccable fit for the mood and characters of the scene. Andrew Hampton Livingston’s tap numbers, especially the Grand Finale, are a delight. Music Director Lee Harris and assistant Dishon Smith deliver an exciting rendering of the excellent musical score, providing a brilliant enhancement to the action onstage.

Magic. Isn’t that what we all want? At least once a year? A hope that change can happen, and new beginnings can be undertaken. Give the gift of Barter’s Elf: The Musical. Even the grumpiest Scrooge will come away spreading Christmas cheer – singing out loud for all to hear.

Elf: The Musical runs at Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA through December 30.

For tickets and information contact 276-628-3991 or

Bonny Gable is a freelance writer based in Bristol, Virginia.