By Colin Douglas
There seems to be an increase in holiday plays and musicals that feature an elf as the main character.
First, we have the snarky, darkly humorous Santaland Diaries. Then there’s the big, splashy, tuneful Elf, the Musical, about Buddy, the Elf. Rudolph the Red Nosed (and Red Hosed) Reindeer both feature an elf in a main role. But another play with music that’s become a Chicago holiday tradition has another elfin North Pole citizen as its leading man: Barney the Elf.
While this story and its over-the-top characters are written to primarily appeal to the LGBTQ segment of the population, the play’s theme speaks to everyone. Bigotry, bullying and just plain being mean and nasty to others is an unfortunate universal epidemic that should be despised any time of year. But at Christmas, a time devoted to Peace on Earth and Good Will to All, it seems particularly like a sacrilege.
In this new play with music, written by Bryan Renaud and Emily Schmidt, Barney is an elf who’s aided by his true friends. Through their help he learns not only accept who he is but how to overcome an intolerant world of injustice and narrow-mindedness.
Renaud and Schmidt’s warmhearted but slightly raunchy script (this isn’t a children’s show) is an adult parody of the popular Will Ferrell movie, “Elf.” It’s also one more reminder that tormenting and persecuting others, simply because they’re different than you, is absolutely unacceptable. In this story Barney, one of Santa’s elves, is not only optimistically chirpy and cheerful, but he’s gay. He discovers this after accidentally spilling a cup of hot cocoa on the shirt of a hunky UPS man. When Barney suggests that he remove the soiled garment for washing and sees the guy’s half-naked body, the elf experiences sexual titillation for the first time. From then on Barney must learn to accept the fact that he’s playing for the other team.
The rest of the play concerns other events at the North Pole. Santa Claus has passed away and his bitter son, Santa Junior, has inherited the holiday toy shop. Echoing the sentiments of a certain orange-tinted National Leader, Junior proclaims that he wants to “Make Christmas Great Again!” Obsessed with production efficiency and money-saving strategies, and possibly building a wall somewhere, Junior has no time for joy, kindness or empathy. When he learns that Barney is gay, Junior uses it as an excuse to fire the elf and send him packing.
As the one employee who most embodied the Christmas Spirit, Junior is jealous of Barney and finds this an excuse to get rid of him. Mrs. Claus, formerly from Chicago, advises Barney to head to Boystown in the Windy City, where he’ll be welcomed with open arms. She promises that it’s a liberal environment where everyone, no matter who they are, will be embraced. Barney finds this fable slightly flawed and must learn firsthand about life in the big city before all ends well.
Renaud and Schmidt’s play offers a much-needed and admired message about tolerance and being true to oneself. There can never be too many reminders that bigotry is wrong. The story features several interesting characters and the performances range from competent to over-the-top. Directed by Michael D. Graham, the production feels a little choppy and doesn’t always flow smoothly from scene to scene.
This is partly the fault of the script, with the insertion of songs that don’t always further the plot. Incorporated into the story, the songs aren’t original, but taken from Broadway musicals and Billboard’s greatest hits. They include “Nine to Five,” “I Will Survive,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Last Christmas” and “All I Want for Christmas is You,” among others. The prerecorded tunes have been shortened and their lyrics modified to fit the plot, the legality of which seems questionable. The songs, however, are performed with plenty of spirit and gusto, particularly by the sweet, likable and talented Roy Samra, as Barney, and the lovely, leggy and glibly acerbic drag queen Dixie Lynn Cartwright, as Zooey (this role is played by Danika Bone’t at alternate performances). However, when the greatest endorsement coming from an audience member is that “the show is cute,” something is missing.
Graham injects a whole lot of pluck and panache into this modest production, while highlighting the warmth of his leading character and Barney’s deep need for acceptance and understanding. Graham still manages to keep his eye on the fact that this play is a satire. The script has been liberally updated with all kinds of topical references ripped from today’s headlines. In fact, it’s impossible view this musical without reflecting upon the bigoted, oppressive attitude change this country has incurred, thanks to the current Washington administration.
Still, the evening does abound in plenty of lighthearted fun. There’s a sweet Mrs. Claus, played with sincerity by Maggie Cain; a boo-worthy villain, in the guise of Jaron Bellar, as Santa Junior; a chorus of handsome, high-stepping beauties and beefcake (for those who appreciate that sort of thing); and an array of smartly designed colorful costumes by Shawn Quinlan. Paul Scottnik’s musical direction is spot-on and Claire Hart’s choreography heightens the entertainment value of many of the musical numbers.
While this play with music may not appeal to everyone, theatergoers looking for something lighthearted, colorful and gay, with a holiday message of Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men, will certainly enjoy this show.
Pride Films & Plays presents “Barney the Elf” through January 6, 2019, at The Broadway Theatre, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.