With a looming pandemic this holiday season, many are taking the extra step to keep the cheerful spirits high.
It’s a pandemic that has not only decimated those spirits for much of 2020, but it also took a deep toll on the arts scene.
Live concerts disappeared.
TV show productions were halted.
Movie theaters closed.
And the many magical moments seen in theatrical plays were stripped away.
Casella Theater at Castleton University saw no rehearsals, no beautiful scenes on stage, no dancing and singing and standing ovations. But thanks to a spectacular effort by Pride’s Young Artists in Rutland, Vermont, two Castleton students were able to carry on their passion through a COVID-19 safe production of “Elf, Jr.,” a spinoff of the popular holiday movie, “Elf.”
Sophomore Luke McGee, who said the play made him feel “hopeful” and happy to be able spread joy in these trying times, starred as Buddy the Elf.
And he aced it.
McGee perfectly encapsulated cheerful joy and childlike innocence of our favorite human elf, showing his contagious smile right through the mask. He also was in charge of editing the video production.
“We all need some hope and light right now, and Buddy’s story has the perfect balance of comedic timing and heartfelt moments to brighten homes this holiday season,” he said.
The show quickly jumped right into the Christmas spirit with a choir of elves singing a song about their 24/7 cheer. The elves were happy all the time, so much that Santa even needed a break.
Humor was imminent right off the bat as Santa claimed this little village in the North Pole known as Christmas town is unique because only elves live there – and there’s no Starbucks.
A common sign of 2020 followed when the choreography and singing cut to a zoom screen, introducing a virtual wave of elves.
They all wore their masks, and the songs were lip synced and pre-recorded in an environment where singing was a little safer.
As Buddy ran onto the stage wearing his iconic green and yellow costume, you could instantly tell his favorite activities were singing and smiling. It was an impressive display as McGee, who fittingly stood tall among the elves, showed off his deep baritone voice, which truly brought the elf choir down a whole octave.
From there, the story of Buddy the Elf began. We saw familiar scenes from the movie, from Buddy thinking he’s a cotton-headed ninnymuggins, to finding out he’s human, and that his naughty-listed father lives in the big city. The choir took a fun twist, breaking into song and incorporating Buddy’s to-do list for when he meets his dad into the lyrics.
And as he journeyed to New York City, the video seamlessly shifted to an outdoor setting at a playground.
After finding the world’s best souvlaki and thinking he sees Santa on the city streets, the scene shifts back indoors when Buddy finally meets his father, Walter Hobbs. Only this time, he was met with a temperature check when he entered the Empire State Building.
We saw multiple instances of this unique style of theater incorporating aspects of the new normal. Scene’s changed from outdoor to indoor frequently to change setting. Camera angles enhanced the choreography, showing just how in-sync the dancing elves were.
But we were also introduced to some creativity as the script began to show some differences. Rather than getting the full rundown of Buddy’s journey, traveling through “seven levels of the candy cane forest and through the sea of swirly twirly gumdrops,” he said he took the Lincoln Tunnel even though the George Washington Bridge would’ve been a mile shorter.
And when he first met his father, he also met Emily and Michael, his stepmom and brother, right in Walter’s office. Emily Hobbs was played by Castleton musical theatre major AJ Grant.
Buddy didn’t go to the mailroom, but instead he was distracted by a paper shredder, something he had never heard of before.
But one scene that remained unchanged was when Buddy realized there was a fake Santa coming to town. The Lego Empire State Building display wasn’t there to be destroyed, but Buddy was still tackled by the man in the red suit.
When Buddy met Jovie it was still just as magical, but with a change in the storyline; their first date didn’t go exactly as it does in the movie.
Of course, as we all know from the movie, the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear. Jovie similarly wasn’t accustomed to that, but when Buddy broke into song as they sat together in the city, Jovie ultimately tagged along. Buddy was in love, and he didn’t care who knew it.
The play was the perfect mix of surprises and familiar moments from original move script. At a time in the world where negativity surrounds us, this production of Elf, Jr. certainly brought a smile to my face.
According to McGee, it also brought smiles to the faces of all the actors and actresses who participated. They put in hours of hard work, committing to quarantining while doing rehearsals and following all of the guidelines. He truly appreciated Pride’s Young Artists initiative.
“Time and time again over the course of the production, we had the gift of seeing the actors smiling beneath their masks and laughing with their friends from six feet away. Artists need this. They need to make memories, they need to make new friends, and most importantly: they need a safe place to grow and feel free to be themselves,” he said.
As Buddy was heartbroken by his father telling him to leave, he missed his Christmas Eve date with Jovie. It was all falling apart for Buddy. It seemed like the world was coming down on him, something many of us have experienced in 2020.
But as he saved Christmas when Santa’s sleigh could no longer fly, Jovie came back to sing the same tune from their first date. It was the perfect joyful ending. And perhaps with this magical holiday season, we, too, could have our own perfect endings.
Pride’s Young Artists next production will be a performance of Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr., which will premiere in February. Auditions will be held on Dec. 14 and 15 over Google meet, and sign-ups can be at www.signupgenius.com/go/409094AACAB2FA2FF2-little.