‘Elf: The Musical’ brings Christmas in July to Toby’s Dinner Theatre

WTOPs Jason Fraley previews 'Elf' at Toby's (Part 1)

It may be the heat of summer, but it’s time for a little Christmas in July!

Toby’s Dinner Theatre presents “Elf: The Musical” through Aug. 22.

“We’re celebrating the holiday season that we didn’t get last year,” director Mark Minnick told WTOP. “Doors are opening; people are venturing out — let’s celebrate! Let’s have some joy.”

The show follows a young orphan named Buddy who mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts and is transported to the North Pole. As he grows up taller than the rest of the elves, he realizes he is human, and makes the journey to New York City to find his birth father.

“Along the way, he helps everybody remember the true meaning of Christmas,” Minnick said. “The audience starts to chuckle as they know their favorite lines are coming up, like, ‘Oh my God, Santa! I know him!’ or ‘Smiling’s my favorite’ — all of the catchphrases from ‘Elf’ are there. Hearing them chuckle in anticipation for it and then laugh when it happens, it was really exciting.”

It was founder Toby Orenstein’s first watch, having never seen the 2003 film or 2010 Broadway show.

“I was there completely with a clean slate and I was like a little kid watching it,” Orenstein said. “It was wonderful. … I plan on seeing it again and again — and I don’t need to see it anywhere else.”

Jeffrey Shankle brings “honesty and warmth and humor” Will Ferrell’s role of Buddy the Elf, Minnick said: “In the wrong hands, the character of Buddy could grate on you after five minutes, but there’s such pure innocence, heart, wonderment and care to the character. … It’s really lovely and very funny.”

David Hopkins designs the lighting and set with festive decorations.

“When you walk in the lobby, it’s like Buddy stayed overnight and took care of our whole building,” Minnick said. “It is decked for the holidays.” He said the set and costumes come from the Broadway touring production: “It is one splash of color after another. It is beautiful.”

You’ll hear all the great songs from Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin (“The Prom”).

“Their music is so catchy and touching,” Minnick said. “There’s a song called ‘Happy All the Time.’ … ‘Sparklejollytwinklejingley’ is the big Act One Broadway spectacular, then ‘The Story of Buddy the Elf’ is Act Two’s big spectacular.”

Toby’s is no longer under pandemic restrictions, but they are seating about 100 fewer guests than a typical year. It has also brought back its buffet, supplanting table service.

“I was very surprised a lot of our regular customers said, ‘Please bring the buffet back,'” Orenstein said. “We carve roast beef and turkey; we have spare ribs; we have all the vegetables you want to think of, rice, potatoes, corn on the cob, we have tilapia fish [and] shrimp. … Then we serve salad and ice cream and different cakes for dessert.”

Orenstein emphasized, “You have to wear gloves to go through the buffet.”

Minnick said, “Our show’s specialty drink, in a souvenir glass, is the ‘Cotton-Headed Ninny Muggins.’ It sticks to the four main food groups of the elves: candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup.”

Orenstein thinks the pandemic grew their audience base, since they were one of the first theaters to reopen.

“We had customers coming from New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” Orenstein said. “I think what was happening was that people were looking for something to do and they found us. I can’t tell you how many said, ‘We’re going to be back! This is like a little Broadway right here with dinner at a reasonable price and it’s worth the ride.'”

WTOPs Jason Fraley previews 'Elf' at Toby's (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

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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