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What's an 'Elf' without Santa?

Christmas Ornament
Christmas Ornament

In the list of big roles and big shoes to fill on stage, perhaps none is bigger than the black boots of Santa Claus.

As Santa himself is rather preoccupied this time of year, actors are often called upon to help "play" the Jolly Old Elf.

Such is the case with Pioneer Theatre Company and its production of "Elf — The Musical," an adaptation of the hit Will Ferrell movie, lovingly and musically adapted for stage. It runs Dec. 6-24 at PTC.

"This show is fun and it's sweet and the word I like to use is kind," said Daniel Marcus, the man charged with playing Mr. Claus.

"The show is kind, the characters are kind and underneath, everybody is a big squishy Tootsie Roll." The musical follows the hit film closely. Buddy the Elf, many years ago, sneaked into Santa's bag and ended up at the North Pole. When Buddy finds out he's really human, he treks to New York City to find his real family, only to find they don't believe in Christmas.

This is not Marcus' first foray into the red velvet suit. "My first job out of college was as the Santa at the Stanford University Shopping Center," he said. "The first time I sat down in the suit, and had a little 3- or 4-year-old on my lap and I looked down and saw that look — it was quite a shocking moment.

"That's when I thought 'this is for real — this is very, very precious.’ And I thought 'I'm not going to do anything to wound this very fragile contract between the children and Santa.'"

With 30 plus years of roles under his belt, including PTC's "Paint Your Wagon" (2007) and "Man of LaMancha" (2012), Marcus still harkens back to those days sitting in the shopping center as he dons the red and white suit for "Elf."

"We were given a script at the mall which I just tossed right out," he said. "I never talk louder than the children can hear. I kept it really close and quiet. I wanted them to walk away feeling like Santa told them a secret."

With his most recent costume-fitting under his, ahem, belt, "It's astonishing. I look at myself and see I have a real responsibility and I think that's lovely," Marcus said. "I have a responsibility to portray Santa and to tell the children the story of Buddy the Elf, and it's very similar to talking to those kids 30 years ago. It's magical.

"And this is the most delightful place to work in the country," he said. "Pioneer values their actors, they treat them well, the crew is excited about the show. And we have an 18-piece orchestra and nobody does that!

"And that's a really big deal. It's a thrill from the house and it's a thrill on stage."

"Elf" has music by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin ("The Wedding Singer") and a book by Thomas Meehan ("Hairspray") and Bob Martin ("The Drowsy Chaperone").

"The music is cheery and peppy and it's very Christmasy," Marcus said.

"Buddy the Elf is very much like every kid in the audience — he wants to believe and he wants people to be happy and he wants people to love what he loves. That's how Buddy is and Quinn (VanAntwerp as Buddy) is killer, he's so good.

"I can't imagine any kid in the audience not loving him.

“The show is magical. It’s all about people who have a heart. They all have a desire to believe in Santa and to care about what Santa really means,” Marcus said. “And I certainly believe in the belief of Santa.”