From the opening scene of the musical The Happy Elf, currently running at Slidell Little Theatre, there's a profusion of candy cane stockings and pointy green and red caps. Scott Sauber directs a cast of 35 actors, including four entire families. Its seven crew members also include 17-year-old sound technician Payton Subervielle and 14-year-old Blakely Shouse, managing stage lights.
In 2005, Harry Connick Jr. wrote music and lyrics for The Happy Elf, an animated story he narrated. Slidell Little Theatre's production is the play's New Orleans area stage premiere. Connick's motivation was to deliver a message about generosity while introducing youngsters to jazz. While it's not straight-ahead jazz, Connick put plenty of swing in "Santarrific," subtle syncopation into "The Magic Hat" and minor chords in "Bluesville." A jazz ensemble of eight musicians is backed by a chorus directed by Cody Sires, a vocal performance student at Southeastern University.
In the narrative, Mrs. Claus (Dede Ricard) scolds Santa Claus (John Kirkpatrick) for nibbling on too many cookies, while a decidely happy elf named Eubie (Mikey Willman) hopes to win a ride alongside Santa on his journey delivering toys.
Eubie gets started in Santa's North Pole toy workshop under the sweatshop-style supervision of Norbert (Scott Osborn). Too ebullient for production-line work, Eubie is labeled a "menace" and a "nuisance" by Norbert and reassigned to the naughty and nice department. Sitting in a joyless office at a desk piled with reports, Eubie uncovers a sooty coal-mining town that gets only 23 seconds of sunlight every day and where every child is classified naughty.
"We don't do Christmas," says Bluesville's mayor (Beau Blalock). "All we do is work and worry about work."
Eubie is determined to spread holiday cheer to Bluesville and recruits co-workers Gilda (Madeleine Appel) and Hamm (Mitchell Rogers) to help him.
The mayor's blase teenage daughter Molly (Cara Duffaut) says "Christmas is the dumbest thing ever." While her dad is constantly working, her mom hides in a music store, the only place where she feels happy.
Heartwarming performances are delivered by Willman, Duffaut, Rogers, Appel and Trenton Gilmore. Osborn is marvelously mean as the nitpicking workshop supervisor. But it is impossible to stop watching the youngest cast members, Amber Boothe, 5, and Ayvah Johnson, 4. Johnson's mother Kaula Johnson, who is a theater coach at Music Academy for the Performing Arts in Mandeville, also runs the Slidell Little Theatre spotlight. Ayvah seems to have benefited from acting lessons and almost upstages the leads.
The show's final, illuminating holiday message, delivered by Eubie, is a good takeaway: "We're all like a string of Christmas lights. If one light goes out, they all go out. Then everybody's in the dark."