Encore Michigan

‘Elves and Schumachers’ lights up December at Theatre Nova

Review December 01, 2018 Kym Reinstadler

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–December is here and local theatres are trotting out their most festive, crowd-pleasing shows.

At many theatres, the family feel-good favorite is the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. But Theatre Nova’s switch-it-up tradition is to stage an original pantomime – “panto” for short – written and directed by theatre co-founder Carla Milarch with music composed and directed by R. MacKenzie Lewis of Eastern Michigan University’s School of Theatre Arts.

This year’s panto, The Elves and the Schumachers is Theatre Nova’s most delightful to date. The one-hour and 30-minute production is a highly entertaining variety show with singing, dancing, poignant moments, bombastic action, clever comedy, and a heart-rending holiday message.

There’s not much not to like here, folks. The near-capacity opening night crowd, which included several elementary school-aged children, laughed throughout the show. They also enthusiastically booed and hissed the villainous mayor and minotaur marshall whenever they came on stage.

To be sure, there is some fun adult nudge-nudge wink-wink innuendo in this script from the Blue Fairy (Dan Morrison), but it’s likely to sail unnoticed right over the heads of preteens in the audience. The Elves and the Schumachers is a show a whole family can enjoy together. And, for kids, there will be candy.

There are unlikely holiday show elements – a number sang to the tune of the TV series “Rawhide,” a cameo appearance by Harry Potter, a drag queen, an elf wearing a Tina Turner wig, and a rabbinical convention in Kokomo, Ind.

But it wouldn’t be a panto without a heaping helping of silliness.

Like many pantos, audience participation is both invited and drafted. Don’t worry. You won’t be called upon to participate in anything too embarrassing.

As the show opens, we meet two elves – one with roots in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the other a “house elf” – who need to retool dead-end careers. Their instructor at the vocational workshop ILIKEFARTS (an acronym for Institute for Little and Insignificantly Known Elves and Fairies Anonymous Reskilling and Training Session) is a dentist at the North Pole who is also having to cross-train because Christmas elves never get cavities and cleanings alone won’t pay off his student loans. He teaches elves Elmo and Bobby to sing and dance.

Ultimately, neither Elmo (Sarah B. Stevens) nor Bobby (Elizabeth Jaffe) has the right stuff to work in Santa’s workshop, but Elmo does learn enough toy making techniques to teach Bobby, who is homeless in rural Indiana. The two elves conspire to help a struggling Jewish toy store, Oy Toys, run by single mother Mattie Schumacher (also portrayed by Stevens) stay in business.

In this Christmas play, the Christmas miracle is experienced by Schumacher, a devout Jew who doubts the possibility miracles. That irony is a sweet streak in the show.

William Powers, a fifth grader and Haisley Elementary School, is wide-eyed adorable in the role of Schumacher’s son, Judah. He also commands a very physical role, which includes Kung Fu fighting, Ninja moves, and a Luke Skywalker-like battle scene involving a wooden mallet instead of a light sabre.

Stevens delivers a characteristically brilliant performance, especially with the rap number “I’m Not Throwing Away My Top” and a slapstick routine during a toy-making pop quiz. Her song “What is a Miracle?” is the emotional pinnacle of the show.

Morrison is searingly funny as the Blue Fairy. He also plays at least a half-dozen roles in the play. Quick costume changes sometimes left him returning to the stage out-of-breath, with one side of his fake mustache drooping. In a panto, stuff like that only multiples the fun.

Jaffe also turns in a fine performance as the shy but earnest Bobby, who, with Mattie and Judah Schumacher, finally finds a loving home. IN all, we have three of the best actors around, plus an up-and-comer, giving us their best for a holiday silliness. What a gift of the season!

Click here for show days, times, and details.

Week of 6/17/2019

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