Review: The Best Way to Spread Christmas Cheer is to See ‘Elf: The Musical’ This Year

“The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear” – Buddy the Elf.

When I think about First Stage’s production of Elf: The Musical, I smile from ear to ear.  And while that sentence was a little cheesy, so was this perfectly delightful show. Seeing it feels like an early Christmas present, because it fills you to the brim with holiday cheer. 

If you love the movie, this musical is a natural choice. The plot, and many iconic lines – including my personal favorite, “You sit on a thrown of lies” – are well-represented in the musical rendition. If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s the gist: Buddy the Elf, except he isn’t an elf, lives in the North Pole with Santa Clause and his many elves. Buddy learns he is human and travels to New York City to find his father, who is on Santa’s naughty list. From there, it’s a lot of predictable shenanigans that leads to a heart-warming conclusion. I won’t spoil it for you. 

Adam LaSalle shines as a happy, clumsy, oh-so cheery Buddy. He’s believably awkward in all the right places while as well as a gifted singer and performer. He’s a strong leader in scenes with the young Sparklejolly and Twinklejingly cast while also being a pleasant match with members of the Hobbs family, played by Alan Ball (Walter), Natalie Ford (Emily) and Alex Radtke (Michael) as well as  Rachel Whyte, who plays Jovie, Buddy’s love interest.

Adam LaSalle and Alex Radtke (center), Rachel Whyte (left), Natalie Ford (right) and cast. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

It’s worth noting that this must be an exhausting show for LaSalle, as Buddy is an energetic character. He’s making toys, traveling the world, singing, dancing, decorating, in a brawl with “Santa,” falling in love, exploring New York, singing some more, ice skating, dancing some more and the list goes on. Despite all of this action, LaSalle’s charisma – and stamina – as the character never wavers. 

And young Michael, performed by Radtke, is a talent. His duet with Ford was a shining reminder of First Stage’s ability to find and coach remarkable young performers. It’s worth noting that the first question during the post-show Q&A was from a not-so-shy young girl in the audience inquiring about Radtke’s age. He’s 13, and definitely a rising star in Milwaukee’s theater scene.

Adam LaSalle and Alex Radtke. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

The real highlight for me though, was in the musical number “Nobody Cares About Santa.” Fresh off Buddy’s brawl with the man in red at Macy’s, Buddy lands in a diner full of down-on-their-luck Clauses. The costume choices for these disheveled Santas — a deserving shout out to costume designer Melissa Torchia – were comically on point and the jazzy performers and props made the number a ton of fun. 

Credit for this amazing production does not belong to the cast alone. Choreography by Katelin Zelon made the hustle and bustle of both the North Pole and NYC come to life. And while First Stage didn’t cast a narwhal to say “Bye Buddy, hope you find your dad,” the creative team’s use of the balcony and a map made the scene following Buddy across the world to the Big Apple worth a hearty cheer.

Austin Nelson, Jr., Adam LaSalle, Kelly Doherty, and cast. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But what really helps this First Stage production soar, is the audience. Children and parents alike laughed, clapped and cheered throughout this energetic show. Not a single joke landed flat. And even with a two-hour runtime, the show was exciting enough to hold the attention of even the youngest of attendees. At intermission, I overheard a father asking his daughter if she liked the show. She answered with a heart-warming giggle before telling him, “I like Buddy, he’s funny.” And as far as that parent was concerned, it was the only review that mattered. 

Elf really is the perfect choice for a family holiday show this season, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. The musical is the highest grossing production in First Stage history – beating out the production of A Charlie Brown Christmas in 2015. The First Stage team had to add performances to the schedule in order to accommodate for ticket sales demand. And as an added holiday bonus, the Todd Wehr Theater is within walking distance of some of Milwaukee’s most spectacular Christmas lights. After the show let your family stretch their legs with a quick walk around the Pere Marquette Park park for a perfect holiday evening. 




First Stage’s Production of Elf: The Musical (Runtime: About 2 hours)


Show runs through Jan. 5


Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater (929 N. Water Street)




Allison Garcia is the Digital Editor for Milwaukee Magazine.