The Happy Elf premieres at Cal U this holiday season
For over twenty years, the California University Theater Department and Community have teamed up for a Holiday production. What was once offered as the Nutcracker Ballet at this time of year, changed when the school’s ballet program shifted to a more inclusive musical theater.
For five years, A Christmas Carol was the show, then three years, A Miracle on 34th Street, took the stage.
“There’s not a lot of high quality holiday musicals out there as securing the rights are near impossible,” says the Musical Theatre Department head and Director, Michele Pagen, PhD. “Then Harry Connick, Jr. created the wonderful song, ‘The Happy Elf.’”
The song was such a hit, it inspired an animated special under the same name by Film Roman, an IDT Entertainment company, the same animation company known for producing The Simpsons. The special inspired an additional 19 songs that came on an accompanying CD. Following the success of the animated special, Andrew Fishman reworked the book, with music and lyrics by Connick who had added five new songs for the musical.
The story centers on Eubie the Elf and his friends Hamm and Gilda. While sorting through Santa’s naughty and nice list, Eubie notices an overwhelming amount of kids on the naughty list, all from Bluesville. He takes it upon himself to visit Bluesville and introduce them to the spirit of Christmas. Unfortunately, Eubie’s nemesis, Norbert finds out and plans to undermine his efforts for his own selfish reasons.
I was fortunate to be permitted to a rehearsal at Steele Hall, where the performance will also take place, by Dr. Pagen. The cast is huge and the complexity of blocking and choreography is a massive undertaking.
“We have a cast of 58, ages ranging from 6 to 56,” Michelle stated. “I want every single one of them to have a part, not merely to be stage dressing. Then there’s the challenge of coordinating schedules for so many players.”
Dr. Pagen holds auditions on the same day for all roles and casts one at a time in one day. Jesh Myers jumped right out for the lead role of Eubie. “Jesh shares most of the characteristics of Eubie, particularly when he began to sing,” Dr. Pagen says.
As I watched rehearsals, all of the actors, dancers and singers were wonderful. The music, superb. A few stood out and I decided to sit down and talk briefly with them so you know who they are when you head out to watch this wonderful production, Pennsylvania Bridges readers.
Jeshua “Jesh” Myers (Eubie the Elf). Jesh, pictured top right, began singing at age three. His mother had an all children’s choir. He is a sophomore Theater Major and gets super excited about the audition process. It’s his first major role in college, his last was in High School. His biggest challenge is finding a balance between school work and dedicating time to his character. Jesh is working hard to find a balance in Eubie’s character also. He wants him to be excited and animated but not too over the top. I found his comment about auditions interesting as most actors dread them. His answer was very inspiring.
“It’s what I want to do as a career and the audition process is part of that, so I want to do my best.” Jesh continued, “I know if I do my best, I feel like whatever I end up with, I earned.”
Mark Barrett (Hamm the Elf). Mark is a junior Theater Major. He has reveled in the past month and a half of rehearsals. The role of being an elf has inspired Mark’s imagination to wander and he enjoys the role of being Eubie’s best friend. It’s the human element of friendship, interwoven with the imaginative aspects of the character that Mark is enjoying. He too has found the most challenging part of the production finding balance between school work and character development time. Playing Hamm however, has been a joy.
“Hamm is mostly kind of child-like,” Mark says. “He’s innocent and joyful and how they interact with each other is like letting their inner-child out.”
Kayla Grimm (Gilda the Elf). Kayla is a junior Theater Major. She started in theater at age 5. Not entirely sure her future was headed for theater, Kayla also had a major interest in science. Eventually, she settled on theater. I have to take an editorial moment and say, I absolutely adored her character. From the moment she comes on stage, every subtle nuance from the way she shuffles on her tip-toes to her sheepish mannerisms when talking with Eubie, just great stuff. When we sat down to talk, I was taken aback slightly that her voice wasn’t the high pitched Gilda voice I had heard onstage.
“I really love doing voices,” Kayla explained. “Every character I play, I create a voice for them. For Gilda, she’s very, very happy person and full of energy, especially when she’s around Eubie.”
Jordan Brooks (Norbert the Elf). Jordan is a Cal U Alumni. A professional actor, he is currently on break from the Missoula Children’s Theater and will resume productions in January of 2017. Jordan was a late comer to the theatrical field. It wasn’t until middle school that he developed his love for theater and never looked back. His character, Norbert, is the play’s heavy. He is always scheming and a complete heel. I love his performance, possibly my favorite character. To sit and talk with him after watching him on stage, again, a bit surprising. He is the nicest, most charismatic person you could meet. You can tell in his quote when I asked what his motivation was for coming back as an alumni.
“I’m so happy the Holiday Show is community based and the public is welcome,” says Jordan. “That’s really what the Christmas spirit is all about, everyone coming together.”
One final aspect of the play I would like to cover, the costumes. Imagine if you can, prepping 58 costumes for people of varying shapes and sizes. That enormous task is being executed by the Costume Shop Manager, Joni Farquhar. Typically, Joni works with a designer to help with the costumes, but not for this production, she is the designer as well. Her walls are lined with various costumes, designed specifically for the Elves’ various jobs. As pictured, this is the shirt for the tailor elf. Each elf has the smallest details and touches worked out by Joni. Measuring tape trim with a spool of thread pocket emblem, just by looking at the costume, one can determine the elf’s job in the North Pole. I won’t share more, you have to come and see the rest of Joni’s wonderful creations for yourself, live and in person.
“The Happy Elf” will be performed at 7 p.m. Dec. 8-10, with matinees at 2 p.m. Dec. 10 and 11. All shows are in Cal U’s Steele Hall Mainstage Theatre. Performances are open to the public.
Ticket price is $12 for adults, seniors and children. Cal U students with valid CalCards pay 50 cents, plus a $5 deposit that is refunded at the show.
Main Campus – Steele Hall
816 Third Street
Room: Steele Hall–Mainstage Theatre
Name: Steele Hall Box Office
Story by Tomato Elf, Fred Terling, for Pennsylvania Bridges