Chicago Theater Review: BARNEY THE ELF (The Other Theatre Company at Greenhouse)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 3, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


You can’t keep a good elf down. Very loosely based on the 2003 film starring Will Ferrell as a love-seeking non-elf named Buddy, Barney the Elf repurposes the flick—and some favorite tunes in its parody score—to deliver a feel-good “found” musical. Certainly in 2016 a reminder of the rewards of tolerance both on the North Pole and in Chicago is not redundant or remiss.


Celebrating a second season, The Other Theatre Company’s peppy 90-minute presentation, now at the Greenhouse Theater Center, is cute on top of cuddly with bits of adorable, irrepressible and irresistible thrown in. Written by Bryan Renaud (who gamely tackles the title role) and festively staged by Tommy Rivera-Vega, its brain may be missing but its heart is in all the right places.


The war on Christmas, it seems, has reached the North Pole: Kris Kringle has just driven his last sleigh, and the entire toy and distribution empire has fallen into the non-tender mercies of Santa’s selfish and very un-jolly son Junior (a petulant Jonathan Parker Jackson). Intent on efficiency and allergic to holiday cheer, this Trump-style entrepreneur sucks the fun from the elves’ Yule toil. He keeps a “naughty list” to punish his enemies and craves cutbacks in charity to match his hardened heart.


Worse, he fires the elves’ favorite sprite Barney, a closeted imp, for lusting openly after a hunky delivery boy (Ben F. Locke). Blushing lavender, Barney must now quit the top of the world. Delivering maternal consolation, widowed Mrs. Claus (Maggie Cain, warmly wise) tells Barney to go to her native Chicago. There long ago her life was transformed, when she met a certain rotund gift-giver who moved them to the highest latitude of happiness. (Hint: It was not Mayor Daley.)


The rest is beyond a guess. Barney finds shelter—and finally identity—in a Boystown gay bar. Then he finds love as he meets the “woman” of his dreams, Zooey (Dixie Lynn Cartwright, a Chicago icon), a drag queen with attitude and spunk. Inspiring timid Barney to stand out rather than fit in, headliner Zooey proves that her “act” is no such thing. Zooey’s annual Christmas “launch ceremony” ends up lifting off Barney’s career as well.


So, will the lovely lad return to the North Pole, put closet-case Junior in the place his name deserves, and encourage the disgruntled elves to save Christmas for more than Chicago? As a certain lady Grinch would say, “You betcha!”


There’s nothing subtle about the sentiment in Barney the Elf (which uses eruptions of foul talk for comic effect). The “new” lyrics by Emily Schmidt and Renaud are more serviceable than smooth, the singing never too good to distract from the dancing. Happily, Olivia Crary’s merry costumes and manic makeup and the director’s unstoppably euphoric choreography will jump-start the hardest heart.


The eleven-person cast are young and fun (not necessarily synonyms). Author Renaud’s wide-eyed, open-hearted, and smile-sweet elf is a cunning contrast to Cartwright’s hardboiled, no-nonsense, big-city drag queen. They may not qualify for a Hallmark card (or even a TV special), but they’re good enough to deserve each other. Maybe we deserve the show too.


photos by Carin Silkaitis

Barney the Elf
The Other Theatre Company
Greenhouse Theatre Center
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sat and Sun at 3
(additional shows Dec. 20, 21 and 27)
for tickets, visit The Other Theatre

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