The countdown is on, everybody. Next week, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre will open its doors with a burst of seasonal joy and welcome audiences to their holiday show, “Elf the Musical.” That’s right; the tights-wearing, sidewalk-gum-eating, sultan-of-snowball-throwing Buddy the Elf, straight from the North Pole, will be dancing and singing (it’s the best way to spread Christmas cheer, you know) his way into audience’s hearts right here in Little Rock.
But first, they sat down with Soirée to tell us all about the show, what it’s like working with kids, their favorite Christmas memories and why you shouldn’t expect a line-by-line rehash of the movie. We heard from Ethan Paulini, who plays Buddy; J.B. Adams, our resident Santa Claus; Anna Lise Jensen in the role of Emily Hobbs; Alyssa Gorgone as Jovie; and the show’s director, Nicole Capri.
“Elf” opens Dec. 5 at The Rep. For tickets or more information, click here.
There’s a lot of hype surrounding this show. A lot of performance are already almost sold out and people are really excited. What’s that like?
Nicole Capri: I haven't seen this kind of hype since we did “A Christmas Story.” It had its own cult following, “White Christmas” everyone loves because it’s a big classic, but something like this is so culture current and the movie’s only 10 years old. It’s got such a following.
Ethan Paulini: When I say to people that I’m playing Buddy the elf, it’s that type of movie where everyone has their favorite line or their favorite moment and they love to share that with you. They’ll call you a cotton-headed ninnymuggins or say, “Hey, you like syrup?” There’s so many iconic moments already in the short existence of the film that made their way into the lexicon of holiday moments, so I think that makes people excited at the prospect of seeing that on stage. There are plenty of differences, though. This is a musicalized treatment of the story, but all of those things that make people comfortable and happy and nostalgic, even though its a newer title, all exist and I think that’s what make people look forward to it.
NC: The fact that my seven-year-old niece and my 70-year-old mother both know the lines, it’s great. It crosses so many barriers, it’s interesting, it’s got a hook.
So are you guys fans of the movie?
Alyssa Gorgone: Oh, absolutely. It was one of three movies in our house growing up that was always on repeat around Christmas. My brother and I watched it so many times.
Anna Lise Jensen: My favorite part about Buddy is that he just has this thing about him. My favorite scene in the movie is when he runs into the coffee shop and screams “Congratulations!” I think I had just moved to New York around that time. There are just so many ways you can choose to look at life and be excited about everything that comes to you, or you can choose to look at everything as an obstacle. The fact that he finds the most ridiculous things amazing and wonderful was this reality that, even in July, if I was having a bad a day, I could just put it on and it would kind of cheer me up.
What are you favorite parts about playing your characters in particular?
EP: I like his optimism. It’s funny that you said that about coming to New York and whether you choose to view the world with that sort of glass half full, or do you resist things. It’s a fish out of water tale. He doesn’t think he’s weird in any way. He’s just sort of plunked down in these new circumstances and I love the way he reacts to them. Everything is face value. He doesn’t have a lot of subtext, he just says things. It’s not innocence. I don’t think he’s dumb and I don’t want to play him as dumb. I just think that he lived in his circumstances and now he’s in new circumstances. It’s fun to watch him take the ideals that he has and put them in a little bit more of a jaded world.
AG: I think Jovie’s interesting too because she starts off as this completely cynical, angry person, but what eventually makes her soften up is just the same idea that if you smile at someone long enough, they can’t be angry with you forever. If you kill them with kindness, eventually they can’t just continue that way; they just can’t. I think it’s interesting to see how he affects real people. He's got the family aspect that’s going, but with her you see how this optimism can affect a separate person.
J.B. Adams: I like how Santa’s more real. He’s not sentimentalized. He’s got a heart and he has a soft touch with Buddy, but he’s not going to show it. It’s nice. That’s what I love about this piece; it plays against the sugary sweet, and that’s more fun and interesting for me and for the audience, hopefully.
ALJ: I mean, if you're going to believe as an adult in Santa Claus, you probably don’t want him to be this saccharine, glossed-over thing.
JBA: No, and I like it. He’s got a wife and he’s watching the game and he’s also Santa.
NC: On the first day, a lot of our kids playing elves walked in and saw him and their eyes got big. They weren’t sure that that wasn’t really him.
JBA: And I want to keep them guessing.
ALJ: And we’re off on christmas eve, so… It’s funny because my favorite part of my storyline is the fine line of protecting the innocence of your child. Michael (her son in the play), is 10 years old. I actually have a nephew who’s 10, so I was speaking to my sister about what’s it’s like having a 10 year old. She said that it’s like this thing where one day, he looks at you and says something, and you're like where did you come from and why are you so jaded and angry and acting like a teenager already? And then the next moment, he’ll shift entirely and just want so desperately to believe that these Legos are turning into real ninjas and that he can build something that will go to the moon. It’s a very strong shift, and our responsibility as adults is to protect these kids from growing up too soon, but allow them the space to fill those edges out.
I think what the holidays and a fairytale story like this can bring up is this desire to believe in something that probably is not real. You want your kid to want it, but you want it, too. I think that that’s such a real life thing, and that’s what the Buddy effect is: bringing this total wide-eyed optimism to make you realize that you can make simple choices that can make you feel just slightly better about things that are hard.
This show has a lot of local kids in the cast. What’s is like working with them?
JBA: Oh, it’s great. They’ve got such great attitudes. They want to be here.
NC: There were almost 100 kids who auditioned for these 13 roles. There are days that I’m just like, oh my gosh we’re so behind, this needs to be perfect, point your toes, enter here… But then you look at them and they’re just mesmerized by a prop or a costume and they’re so happy to be here. You just have to remind yourself where your heart was when you fell in love with the theatre the first time. It’s not just this Christmas magic effect on them, it’s first-time-doing-a-show magic. Their bodies are buzzing when they walk in the door. The attention span in rehearsal can make you crazy, but then you turn around and they’re magical and they’re perfect and they’re precious.
They will never forget this Christmas. They'll never forget what it felt like to wear these fabulous costumes under these bright lights in front of 400 people every night with this guy that looked just like Santa, and they really weren't sure at the time if that was him or not…. These parts weren’t written for kids, they were for adults, but I made a choice. It’s tough and it’s a huge investment, but the payoff’s going to be huge.
Because the movie is so popular, do you feel any sort of tension to portray a character more like the movie, or is there a rebellious drive to do it differently?
EP: Kind of neither. I’m not trying to be Will Ferrell at all. I’m not Will Ferrell, I’m nothing like Will Ferrell. What he did in the movie was great, but his is the same general story with lots of differences. I’m still going to eat spaghetti with syrup, I’m still probably going to go through revolving doors and all those things you love to see from the movie, but it’s also going to be this new take on the themes of the story. To me, it’s reawakening the child inside you but also allowing yourself to grow, but in the way that a relationship with another person makes you grow. Buddy’s not about becoming an adult and his dad already is one. It’s more about growing together and understanding each other’s point of view and accepting it. That is what I think will hopefully come through, despite any differences or anything not exactly like the movie.
JBA: I think if you do your own take on it, it will actually help erase that memory more than if you try to imitate and fail. If you try to imitate, you just invite comparison. They can see you trying to do it.
NC: I knew casting Ethan I wasn’t going to get a carbon copy of Will Ferrell and I wanted that desperately. You can get on YouTube, you can see different people playing Buddy and a lot of them are very much impressionists of the Will Ferrell character. It just doesn’t ring authentic to me, nor to the audience.
ALJ: And I think the script does a good job of taking the fun things you want to see from loving the movie, but not carbon copying it. It’s a totally different medium. We’re going to break out into song and dance, all of us, not just Buddy. There are scenes that don’t exist in the movie, there are character relationships that get fleshed out.
Do you have any favorite holiday memories?
JBA: Christmas morning, my dad always made breakfast. I would stay up until all hours of the night waiting for Santa to arrive. I wanted to catch him, but I never did.
AG: My brother and I would wake our parents up Christmas morning and they wouldn’t have put anything out yet. We’d have this whole thing where my parents would run down and we would have to stay at the top of the stairs. My dad would be like, “Oh my gosh, you wouldn’t believe what’s down here!” while my mom’s frantically pulling things out of the closet. We’d sneak down one step and they’d tell us to get back up there. Years later, even as adults, we’d play along and it was just a fun family thing.
NC: I was always upset because we didn’t have a chimney. My parent’s were like, “Oh no, he lands on our sun deck.” I would check 15 times before I went to bed to make sure that back door was unlocked.
ALJ: My sisters are 10 and 12 years older than me. Most of my Christmases were so boring because i was so young. I remember being six or seven, my sisters were 17 and 19, and they’re very generously trying to be nice siblings, but it’s 6 a.m. Then they started getting married and our family became more about Christmas Eve and being able to stay up with my parents and my sisters just having conversations, so that’s what really stands out to me.
EP: I have two nephews and nieces, so Christmas has gotten more fun again. I can be goofy sometimes and if ever anyone wonders where that came from, it’s from my father. He does this thing, it’s absurd. He puts on this awful Santa costume, he looks nothing like Santa. Even when the littlest one was two, he knew it wasn’t the real Santa. He goes through this whole charade and we get these gag gifts, just our inside jokes. It used to be that everyone got a gift or two, but now it has turned into all Christmas Eve. It lasts forever and everybody gets ideas all year, accumulating all these joke gifts.