Q&A: Buddy the Elf sings into Olney Theatre Center in ‘Elf: The Musical’

David Schlumpf stars as Buddy the Elf in "Elf: The Musical" at Olney Theatre Center. (Stan Barouh)(Courtesy Stan Barouh)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Elf: The Musical' at Olney Theatre (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — If smiling is your favorite, you might want to head out to Olney, Maryland.

“Elf: The Musical” is spreading cheer by singing loud for all to hear at Olney Theatre Center.

“Smiling is one of my favorite things, I’m not gonna lie,” lead actor David Schlumpf told WTOP. “I enjoy the holiday season and I connected with the character more than I even expected. He really appreciates the fun parts of the season, which isn’t necessarily the presents. It’s hanging out with each other. … He is the most endearing manchild you’ve ever met. It’s typecasting!”

Based on the 2003 film and 2010 Broadway adaptation, the musical follows Buddy (Schlumpf), who crawls into Santa’s toy sack as a child and grows up thinking he’s an elf at the North Pole. When he realizes that he’s actually a human, he travels to New York City to meet his real dad.

“He’s a ‘narwhal’ out of water,” Schlumpf joked about the beloved fish-out-of-water tale. “We shifted it to where Santa takes Papa Elf’s role, so he’s telling the story within the story. He starts the show by opening the book ‘Buddy the Elf,’ which turns out to be the book that saves the day. He’s the guy who’s the father figure for Buddy, as Bob Newhart is in the movie.”

While the 2003 film has become a holiday favorite with Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner and Peter Dinklage, Schlumpf had never seen it until recently.

“I didn’t see the movie until about a week before we started previews,” Schlumpf admitted. “I kind of wanted to wait because I didn’t want to do too much exactly what Will Ferrell did, because I’m totally not Will Ferrell. But I wanted to make sure the things that people love so much, making it an iconic Christmas movie, I wanted to make sure I was hitting those.”

The adaptation by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan maintains plenty of movie references.

“‘Bye Buddy, I hope you find your dad,’ that’s totally there,” Schlumpf said. “‘Santa, I know him!’ … Tasting the perfume that he thinks is fruit spray. … Syrup and spaghetti in the morning. A lot of little moments. … The adaptation does a really good job of keeping the best parts of the movie and making it appropriate for the stage. … They’ve pulled a lot of scenes directly from the movie, then created a reason why all of a sudden reality explodes into the need to sing.”

Of course, the biggest change is the musical score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin.

“We open the show in Christmastown and there’s a big number where you see all of the elves and we have lots of puppets,” Schlumpf said. “Christmastown is sort of like ‘It’s a Small World After All.’ There’s elves from everywhere all over the globe, so they’re all dressed in the holiday dress of where they’re from. It’s really cool. It’s really visually stunning, honestly.”

Once Buddy arrives in Manhattan, we get a dazzling holiday number in the Big Apple.

“We have a big production number when he gets to New York: ‘Sparklejollytwinklejingley,'” Schlumpf said. “Lots of garland, bows, tinsel that turns into jump rope, throwing presents, dancing. … Big flats to suggest New York and Macy’s. … It becomes this magical experience.”

It all builds to the culminating number “Buddy the Elf,” marking his character’s growth.

“Buddy gets to tell his own story and save the day in the moments before his dad is about to lose his job,” Schlumpf said. “He turns his own story into a successful children’s holiday story.”

By the end, the theater will feel like you’re inside a snow globe.

“The whole set looks like a snow globe,” Schlumpf said. “The designers pulled away from the super traditional green and red, but Christmastown is definitely inspired by 1950s Christmas cards … with wreaths, cut-out trees, snowflakes. … We have really magical snow — and not just on stage. … I’ve never seen it snow in a theater like this. Every single night the audience gasps and the kids start to cheer. It is the most magical experience I’ve ever had on stage.”

For all this, it’s the perfect show to see with the family this holiday season.

“It’s an awesome show for people who have gotten to know the movie and love the humor and joy of that movie,” Schlumpf said. “It’s an even better show for people who just need a little escape from maybe what’s going on in the world, maybe the cold weather outside, to just come in and be reminded of how easy it can be to embrace the joy and cheer of the season.”

Find more details on the theater website. Hear our full conversation with David Schlumpf below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with David Schlumpf (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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