Every year a handful of new Christmas films are released with the hopes of becoming the next Christmas Carol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or A Christmas Story- films that usher in the season and become ingrained in our lives. Most simply join the never-ending marathons on cable tv for the holidays, but every now and then one breaks through and gets a strong following. And just when it seemed as though A Christmas Story might be the last pure Christmas classic, Elf came along in 2003. Starring Will Ferrell, the film was so full of Christmas magic and originality that it became an instant classic. Seven years later, Elf the Musical landed on Broadway.
Paper Mill Playhouse is presenting Elf this holiday season from November 26 to January 4. Based on the film, Elf tells the story of Buddy, an orphan who is mistakenly transported to the North Pole and raised by Santa's elves. Now, as a grown up, he embarks on a journey to discover his true identity. The production stars James Moye as Buddy, Kate Fahrner as Jovie, and Paul C. Vogt as Santa.
"I loved the movie," said Fahrner who previously performed the role of Jovie at the Walnut Street Theatre last year. "The movie is amazing. I was nervous about what it would be like on stage, but it's a very special show. It's a show for everyone. Families and kids, everyone that comes just gets sucked up in it. It's so fun watching Buddy figure out life as a human and the ending is incredibly moving. Even for me it's so moving when Jovie feels something for the first time and remembers what Christmas is all about."
The play stays pretty close to the film, but there are several differences. There's no Father Elf in the play and the narration is now done by Santa Claus. Likewise, you won't hear the same music that was in the film, but you will hear some original tunes instead.
Elf contains the same magical elements that made the film so beloved. It's the right blend of being magical without being too corny. Something that's not easy to do. As with the best Christmas stories, Elf makes it easy to believe in a tale that's truly fantastical which borders on the ridiculous. On stage, it is an extravaganza of color from the costumes to the various sets (Rockerfeller Center, Central Park, inside the store) and offers a virtual playground for the actors to explore and have fun.
This will be Fahrner's first time in a production at Paper Mill. Originally from Michigan, Fahrner moved to New York City when she was 20. There weren't many musical theatres in her area while growing up and she didn't even know that places like Paper Mill existed.
"I remember seeing Beauty and the Beast on a national tour when it came through Detroit," she recalled. "That was the first play I saw on stage in high school and it blew me away. I just didn't understand that you could do something that big and live every night. I knew that I wanted to do it, but I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know if I was going to make it."
When Fahrner moved to New York, she was completely on her own. She first learned tips about the industry by stopping a random woman she saw on the street who was wearing a Footloose hat. She asked the woman if she was an actor. The person pulled Fahrner into the lobby of her building and answered various questions about the industry such as how to negotiate contracts.
Years later, Fahrner can look back at a rather successful career. She's not only made a living as an actor in New York City, but performed on Broadway in Wicked - one of the most successful musicals in history. She's had juicy roles like Ellen in Miss Saigon, Rizzo in Grease, and Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday - roles which offer a lot for an actor to discover on stage.
"I love the dark characters that people think of as flawed and Jovie is that as well," said Fahrner.
"To figure out where they are coming from and what their issues are and find the humanity within what people can call a villain. None of these people are just bad. I love to dig in and see what they are all about."
Now living in Maplewood, NJ, Fahrner is excited to finally perform at Paper Mill. Her husband, whom she met during the one play they did together, has performed several shows there. She says he tends to be in big, dance heavy shows, which aren't her forte. Ironically, she is returning to the role which earned her a very humorous review. When Fahrner played Jovie at Walnut Street Theatre last year, one reviewer raved about how believable she was playing a socially inept person.
"I think that's my favorite review I've ever gotten," said Fahrner. "It's like 'She's never been on stage before, she's just standing there awkward' and that makes me so happy because I think as an actor we strive to be normal on stage - to be a normal person. And sometimes that can be very hard. People are scared to sneeze or cough on stage, but normal people sneeze and cough.
"There are people that are really uncomfortable with an elf running around and making a ruckus when they don't want to be noticed," continued Fahrner. "And that was the way we played it in Philadelphia. The review made me so happy because it was exactly what I was going for. What's going to be fun with this production is that Eric Ankrim (who is directing Paper Mill's production) has a different take on Jovie. When we were in auditions he gave me direction in a completely different way and it was fun to drop everything I had done before and try something new. That's what is exciting about doing shows multiple times and I'm looking forward to it. It's always fun to play with other actors on stage and work with different directors and choreographers and see how other people's brains think about the same piece."
Elf runs Nov 26 to Jan 4, 2015 at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ.
For more information visit www.papermill.org
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at email@example.com.