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FMCT's sold-out 'Elf' shows what a gift the new Moorhead space is

Director and choreographer Dawn Gunderson unwrapped “Elf” last week, and audiences have been as excited as Buddy seeing Santa to check out the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre production.

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Jovie and Buddy the Elf, played by Emily Kautz and Jake Sells, put up ornaments on the Christmas tree in Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre’s "Elf the Musical." Forum file photo
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MOORHEAD — The Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre got a Christmas present early this year — in February — when the city of Moorhead offered it a new home in the Hjemkomst Center.

While the troupe opened the new space in October, more in the community will see just what an impressive gift it is with the current run of “Elf The Musical.”

Christmas has felt like stockings full of coal the last two years for FMCT. The troupe was in the middle of “The Christmas Carol” in December 2019 when a crack in the roof of its original Island Park location was discovered and the building was shut down. The company was forced to produce shows in a space meant for rehearsals and classes — and then COVID-19 hit in early 2020, making performing in front of live audiences a challenge.

The new FMCT space in the Hjemkomst opened in October, but its inaugural run of “Young Frankenstein” was cut short when some of the cast got COVID-19. The handful of shows produced sold out fast.

So far, the second run has been a charm. Director and choreographer Dawn Gunderson unwrapped “Elf” last week, and audiences have been as excited as Buddy seeing Santa.

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In the title role, Jake Sells has all of the energy and enthusiasm needed to power the North Pole. He plays Buddy wide-eyed and childlike — in a good way — as he romps through fun songs like “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” as he gets Macy’s ready for Christmas.

Just like the 2003 movie, Buddy is out to find his father after being raised by elves in Santa's workshop for 30 years. Walter Hobbs, however, wants nothing to do with the son he never knew he had as his workaholic life barely leaves room for his wife, Emily, and their son Michael.

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Tracy Frank, left, Roman Indrehus, John Indrehus, Paul Bougie and Jake Sells gather together as their characters Emily, Michael and Walter Hobbs, Santa and Buddy the Elf in Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre’s "Elf the Musical." Forum file photo
Forum Communications Co.

Of course, the addition of the songs is the biggest difference between the play and the 2003 film. The music and lyrics by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin — Tony-nominated for their work on the musical adaptation of “The Wedding Singer” — may never be standalone hits, but they work well for each scene.

While the first half of the show mirrors the movie, the second act adds scenes and character development that keeps the audience’s attention.

Dejected over Walter’s rejection, Buddy meets up with a group of fake Santas commiserating with the stomping good “Nobody Cares About Santa.” It’s a rousing number and a fun way to start the second half, and it shows off members of the company.

Jovie, Buddy’s love interest, tells part of her story with “Never Fall in Love,” showing why this version, played sharply with snears and smiles by Emily Kautz, has more of an edge than Zooey Deschanel’s screen version.

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Michael and Emily find a break from Walter’s Christmas cynicism when they see Father Christmas and share an excited, “There is a Santa Claus.” As Emily, Tracy Frank expresses enough maternal concern with just her eyes to make her believable, whereas 13-year-old Roman Indrehus’ Michael is a full-bodied performance. He taps into the anguish of being a teenager who still holds some childlike hope for better days.

In a nice touch of casting, Roman’s real dad, John Indrehus, plays Walter Hobbs and nails the emotional frigidity of the business-first father that melts with the spirit of Christmas.

The musical gives other characters room to shine. Grace Magstadt makes the most of Walter’s put-upon administrative assistant, Deb, playing her with a quirky energy. On the flipside, Michaela Grace plays the Macy’s manager with a fierceness that Buddy turns into singing and dancing fun in “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.”

To play Santa Claus, you need someone with a big personality — and Paul Bougie delivers as the big man. The radio host plays a grumbling St. Nick and throws in some local jokes that break the ice for the crowd, like trying to find the NDSU Bison football game on TV.

Recreating the magic and spectacle of the North Pole and even Macy’s at Christmas is a tough task, and FMCT opts out of elaborate sets. Instead, costume director Shelly Hurt-Geist’s colorful elf costumes and Santa suits supply the visual cheer.

Even the best Christmas gifts can be a little messy, and opening night did have some issues. The beards on the numerous Santas seemed to be scratching the microphones to an annoying effect. But as Santa Bougie himself exclaimed, “Why am I complaining? It’s Christmas!”

The new space at the Hjemkomst works quite well for shows, with good sightlines and sound. It’s hard to beat a stroll around the Viking ship for intermission.

“Elf The Musical” is a fun bit of eye and ear candy and a treat for those who get to see it. Unfortunately for everyone else, the whole run sold out before opening night. That’s great for the FMCT, but a bummer for those that didn’t get tickets. They’ll just have to wait until next year to see the new space. It really is a gift that keeps on giving.

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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