Newsday Review

Santa’s little helper spreads plenty of Christmas cheer

Erik Gratton stars as Buddy "Elf the Musical"
Erik Gratton stars as Buddy “Elf the Musical” at John W. Engeman Theater in Northport through Dec. 30. Photo Credit: Michael DeCristofaro

November 20, 2018
By Barbara Schuler

WHAT “Elf the Musical”

WHEN | WHERE Through Dec. 30, John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport

INFO $73 ($78 Saturday evenings); 631-261-2900, engemantheater.com

BOTTOM LINE Corny but fun holiday romp based on the hit film.

Precipitation is falling at the John W. Engeman Theater again, only instead of the impressive deluge of May’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” we get a paper-shredder blizzard in the happy holiday romp “Elf the Musical.”

The Northport theater welcomes the season with this family-friendly adaptation by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin of the hit 2003 movie starring Will Ferrell. Here the lovable, galumphing elf Buddy is played by Erik Gratton, who couldn’t be more comfortable in the role, having done it last year at Madison Square Garden. Buddy towers over the other elves and his toymaking skills are woefully lacking — no surprise since he’s really a human orphan who climbed into Santa’s sack one Christmas and ended up being raised at the North Pole.

Santa (the delightfully jolly Gordon Gray, who also serves as narrator) spills the beans, revealing to Buddy that his publishing executive father, unaware he had a child, is on the naughty list because he’s lost the Christmas spirit. Needless to say, Buddy sets off to New York to do what elves do — fix things.

It’s a corny, predictable story with a first act that could stand tightening, but the infectious performances win out under the direction of Matt Kunkel. Gratton is perfect as Buddy, an adorable klutz who mixes childlike wonder with worldly wisdom. Wandering the city, he ends up at Macy’s, where he meets his future wife, Jovie (Caitlin Gallogly), before finally connecting with his family — dad Walter Hobbs (Joe Gately), a stressed-out workaholic with little time for his wife, Emily (Christianne Tisdale), and son Michael (Zachary Podair).

The ensemble gets quite a workout in the show, especially when, as elves, they are required to perform Mara Newbery Greer’s lighthearted choreography on their knees. Ouch! But the best number was the tap-dancing chorus line of fake Santas, in an eclectic mix of red outfits (love the Santa camouflage) by costume designer Leon Dobkowski. The charming set by Nate Bertone adds to the merriment.

In general, the music by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin is generic and not especially memorable, though Gallogly manages to turn “Never Fall in Love (With an Elf)” into a sizzling torch song, and the Macy’s staff’s “Sparklejollytwinklejingley ” is a lot more fun than beleaguered seasonal workers normally display. Needless to say, holiday spirit is restored in time for the finale — as Buddy brings his family together, the cast joyfully proclaims the best way to spread Christmas cheer is “singing loud for all to hear.”

 

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Newsday Review

‘Newsies’: Dancing that’s above the fold

July 24, 2018
By Barbara Schuler

In this age of screen-to-stage musicals, “Newsies” is remarkable because the movie it was based on was an out-and-out flop.

But thanks to video, the 1992 film starring Christian Bale developed a cult following, leading Disney to create a musical that ran for two years after its 2012 Broadway debut, winning Tonys for Alan Menken’s score and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography.

Now making its Long Island debut at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport,  the musical is a rough retelling of the newsboys strike of 1899, a David-and-Goliath struggle pitting a ragtag bunch of tenement urchins against Joseph Pulitzer, the powerful publisher of the New York World. Facing declining circulation, he forces his young hawkers to pay more for their “papes” (period lingo), sparking a rebellion that ultimately led to revisions in the city’s child labor laws.

The Engeman cast, under the fast-paced direction of Igor Goldin, will win you over with its inexhaustible energy and unbridled exuberance, managing to make you forget the flaws, some of which have been with the show all along. The closest thing to a memorable song is the celebratory “King of New York,” and perhaps the amusing “Watch What Happens,” in which Katherine, a character modeled on famed journalist Nellie Bly, sings of her writer’s block. Much of the other music feels repetitious, not helped by a few too many reprises, and while Dan Tracy has more than enough charisma to sell his role as the newsboys’ crusading leader Jack Kelly, vocally he struggles at times.

That can also be said for most of the men in the cast, clearly chosen primarily for their dance skill, which is considerable — a good thing since they rarely get a break from the relentlessly athletic (and again, repetitive) routines thrown at them by choreographer Sandalio Alvarez. Especially impressive is Nick Martinez as Crutchie, who has some cool moves despite having to manage them while maneuvering a crutch. Other highlights in the show (along with DT Willis’ set and Kurt Alger’s costumes) include Mike Cefalo, as the boy with the brains, Zachary Podair as his scene-stealing younger brother, and Whitney Winfield, in lovely voice as the spirited Katherine.

Of course, the most frightening man in “Newsies” is Pulitzer, played by Tom Lucca with enough menace to make me shudder just a bit (full disclosure: I used to work for his grandson). But he was a brilliant editor, and this musical could have used one.

 

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Newsday Review

In the Heights: Scorching numbers on a summer day

By Barbara Schuler
March 21, 2018

Spring is having trouble making an appearance on Long Island, but summer is in full swing at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater, with a spirited take on the high-octane, dance-obsessed, Tony-winning musical “In the Heights.”

This, you might recall, was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, started when he was still in college, well before “Hamilton” was even a gleam in his creative eye. Set on a scorching summer day, the play takes place in Washington Heights, where Usnavi (a fine performance from Spiro Marcos in the role Miranda originated) runs his bodega amid the turmoil of a neighborhood where no one is quite making it.

Director Paul Stancato has gathered an impressive cast, with voices that will blow you away and enough stage electricity to energize a small city. Tami Dahbura is endearing and heartbreaking as Abuela Claudia, the barrio matriarch who raised Usnavi (he’s named for the first thing his parents saw upon arriving in America, a ship that said U.S. Navy) after his parents died. Cherry Torres internalizes her pain as Nina, the girl who got out, coming home from her first year at Stanford with alarming news that sends her ferociously protective parents Kevin and Camila (Paul Aguirre and Shadia Fairuz) into quite the tailspin.

Other standouts include Chiara Trentalange as Usnavi’s feisty, don’t-mess-with-me love interest; Josh Marin as the out-of-place Benny (shades of “West Side Story” right down to the balcony scene), who has his sights on Nina; and Vincent Ortega as the piragua guy, selling shaved ice to anyone he can convince to pass up Mister Softee. Not to mention an ensemble of accomplished singers and dancers who bring Christopher Vergara’s street-kid costumes and Christopher Ash’s storefront set to life, while making it clear they know how to sell salsa (and we’re not talking the stuff you put on chips.)

But it’s Usnavi who holds it all together and Marcos plays him with a quiet, reserved charm and curtailed cockiness that wisely never attempts to channel Miranda (tough, because an unmistakable resemblance cannot be denied). Marcos is comfortable wherever the music takes him, moving effortlessly from haunting ballads like “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “Alabanza” to the hip-hop flavored “96,000.”

“I know I wrote a show about home,” Miranda said in his rapped acceptance speech when he won the 2008 Tony for best original score. And in the end, that is the loving message of “In the Heights,” no clicking of sparkly red shoes required.

 

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