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Burns delivers star turn in Playhouse’s ‘Elf’

YOUNGSTOWN — James Major Burns doesn’t have particularly broad shoulders, but he carries Youngstown Playhouse’s production of “Elf the Musical” on them.

Burns as Buddy the Elf gives the production a jolt of energy and unbridled enthusiasm whenever he is on stage, which is most of the show. While by no means the only reason to see the musical, Burns takes a role so associated with Will Ferrell and makes it his own.

He creates a character who is sweet and guileless, and as a performer he hits every note of the songs written by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin and lands every punchline in the book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin.

The musical is based on the 2003 box-office hit about a boy raised as an elf at the North Pole who, after learning he’s a — gasp! — human, travels to New York City to meet his father, Walter Hobbs (Terry Shears).

Dad is a workaholic at a children’s book publishing house with a younger wife (Ashley Milligan) and a neglected teenage son (Mikey Zoccali, who is dual cast with James Matig). Like a ghost in “A Christmas Carol,” Buddy helps dad and nearly everyone he encounters start to see their lives and the Christmas season in a new way.

“Elf” is comfort theater that goes down like a mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter night. That said, it’s not a show that improves on the source material. The songs are functional, not memorable. The biggest laughs were in David Berenbaum’s screenplay.

Director Nathan Beagle and music director Rosie Bresson have plenty of talent at their disposal. Shears and David Waldman, who plays Santa Claus, are stronger actors than singers, but their songs are tailored to their vocal strengths, and they nailed the demands of playing Buddy’s biological father and his surrogate father, respectively.

Milligan has one of the most polished singing voices in the cast and made her numbers a vocal highlight. Emelia Sherin does double duty as Buddy’s love interest Jovie and as choreographer. Her jaded, guarded Jovie played off Buddy’s exuberance nicely.

Several supporting players also stand out. Wayne Bonner III showed impeccable comedic timing as the store manager and impressive dance moves as dance captain and assistant choreographer. Denise Sculli is hilarious as Walter’s secretary. Joanna Andrei and Eric McCrea were able to make multiple ensemble characters distinctive and entertaining.

The set design by Leslie Brown and Sindy Hanna relies heavily on projection and a few set pieces (Santa’s chair and its backdrop being the most notable). Wendy Akers’ costumes bring color and holiday cheer.

Friday’s opening night felt as if it could have used a couple more rehearsals. Some scene transitions were clunky, there was the occasional wireless microphone issue, and the pacing dragged in spots. All are issues that should improve as the run continues.

Three of the six originally scheduled performances were sold out before the show opened, and the Playhouse added a Saturday matinee to accommodate ticket demand.

“Elf” doesn’t reach the heights of some of the Playhouse’s recent musical hits, but the show delivers the enjoyable holiday outing audiences are looking for at this time of year, and Burns’ performance is not to be missed.

If you go …

WHAT: “Elf the Musical”

WHEN: 2:30 p.m. today and Dec. 12, 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Youngstown Playhouse, 600 Playhouse Lane, Youngstown

HOW MUCH: $18 adults and $15 students, senior citizens and military. Tickets are available online at youngstownplay

house.org and by calling the Playhouse box office at 330-788-8739 between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays.

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