Everyone has a favorite holiday, and David Schlumpf’s is Thanksgiving.
“Usually I don’t like celebrating Christmas until after Thanksgiving,” said the actor, who stars as Buddy the Elf in Olney Theatre’s resident regional premiere of “Elf the Musical” through January 6. “It’s a little early to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to the audience, but the light and the levity of the experience is actually timeless. I’ve been happy to have an excuse to have a little extra cheer in my life these days.”
Cheer is the key word when it comes to “Elf the Musical,” which follows the journey of Buddy, a human who grows up at the North Pole thinking he’s an elf. When he learns the truth — he’s actually human! — Buddy travels to New York City, spreading joy and, yes, cheer wherever he goes. Directed by Michael Bobbitt, choreographed by Tara Jeanne Vallee, and featuring a cast of Olney Theatre favorites like Patricia Hurley, Kevin McAllister, Bobby Smith and Nova Y. Payton, “Elf the Musical” celebrates the transformative power of the holiday season.
“Buddy goes from being a 30-year-old child to being an adult who can still inspire joy,” explained Schlumpf. “And the adults around him go from cynicism to learning that you can inject joy and cheer into just about anything.”
Schlumpf grew up “all over the Southeast;” he started acting in middle school when a friend’s scene partner dropped out before an acting competition. “Being a good friend, I stepped in, having never done anything like that before,” he explained. They won, and Schlumpf was hooked. “I kind of never looked back.” He performed throughout middle and high school, then went to the University of Florida as a double major in musical theater and engineering.
“As my dad likes to tell the story, I got A’s in all my theater classes and C’s and D’s in all my engineering classes,” he recalled. “So, after the first semester, it was pretty clear that I had a path in front of me.”
That path led to a bachelor of arts degree in musical theater from the University of Florida, a master of fine arts in acting from the College of Performing Arts, Theatre Conservatory at Chicago’s Russell University, and a string of acting roles in Chicago and New York. “I’m in my mid-30s and I’ve been doing this for almost half of my life at this point,” he said.
Although Schlumpf only started “doing this” in the D.C. area recently, “Elf the Musical” is his second show at Olney since moving here from Chicago. After playing Luther Billis in “South Pacific” this past summer, he’s taking on the title role in a show he calls “iconic ”— even though he had not seen the movie “Elf the Musical” is based on until two weeks before the show opened.
“It’s my younger brother’s favorite Christmas movie,” he said, referring to the 2003 film “Elf” starring Will Ferrell. “I knew for a fact that people would be coming to see this show hoping to see some of those little iconic moments, so I watched to make sure I was hitting Will Ferrell’s childlike frenetic energy correctly.”
That said, Schlumpf has created his Buddy from scratch, choosing to forego a Will Ferrell imitation and inhabit the character in his own way. “One of the fun parts about my art is creating characters — living, vulnerable human beings — out of the text,” he explained. “People talk to each other on the page, and that’s how I get to know them.
“There are absolutely scenes that are directly out of the movie, but this is a completely different piece — and as someone here at the theater told me, the musical is even warmer than the movie. It focuses on the warmth of the season and the warmth of family and friends and romantic relationships. It’s really heartfelt.”
It’s also interactive, in a way. Schlumpf said that while he knew the audience would love the jokes and the sentimentality — both are sprinkled through “Elf the Musical” like sugar on a Christmas cookie — he has been surprised to see the audience “literally dancing in the aisles.”
That is probably because choreographer Tara Jeanne Vallee has brought her considerable skills to the mix, creating joyous dance numbers and convincing even the most reluctant cast members (Schlumpf included) to channel their inner tap dancer.
Vallee started dancing when she was 2-1/2. In her 20s, she moved from Rochester, New York, to New York City to work as a dancer, but “sort of always knew it was a means to an end.
“I loved performing, it was great, but it was not my main goal.”
She was drawn to the creative side of dance, choreographing for her sister — “who ended up being a Rockette, by the way” — and gradually moved from performer to dance captain to choreographer. She was one of six choreographers selected by the DanceBreak Foundation to showcase her work in 2010, an honor that established her as a choreographer to watch, and she has been doing shows at Olney ever since.
“I love working there, it’s like family for me,” said Vallee, who lives in Queens, New York. “I have choreographed so many different types of shows there: ‘On the Town,’ ‘The King and I,’ ‘The Producers,’ ‘Mary Poppins.’ I really appreciate that they trust me with so many versatile offerings. The thing about ‘Elf’ is, if the people don’t leave with the spirit of Christmas and the joy and the smiles, then we’ve failed.”
She said she came in with an open mind, ready to do a fun show and spread “the message of kindness and acceptance that we all need to hear right now.”
And because “Elf the Musical” is based on a movie without music and dancing, Vallee had a lot of room to create. “There was a Broadway show, so there is a template that exists, and the movie is very different than the show, but with the same spirit and energy,” she said, noting that she relied on the energy of New York and the sheer joy of the holiday season to supply just the right mood for each number. “You trust your instincts and go for it.”
Vallee has seen the audience “going for it,” too — wearing elf hats and ugly Christmas sweaters and popping their heads into the big “Elf Yourself” display in the lobby.
“I think Christmas is a mix of new and old,” she said. “People love the traditions of going to see ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘The Nutcracker,’ but they also really love bringing their kids and starting new traditions.
“It’s all about the family,” she added. “it’s all about coming together as a community and celebrating, whether it’s Christmas or Chanukah — it’s about celebrating life, and each other.”
And while Schlumpf still loves Thanksgiving, he admitted that Christmas is pretty cool, too. “There’s a monologue at the end of the play where Buddy is trying to get everybody to sing and to realize that Christmas isn’t necessarily just about believing in Santa Claus,” he said. “Christmas is about enjoying your family and enjoying things you would otherwise take for granted. And Christmas cheer is this beautiful excuse to remind yourself that you can accept to choose even menial daily activities as a gift, as a joyful experience.
“What I love about the story is that Buddy just oozes joy. He’s able to go into people’s lives — complete strangers — and inject optimism, joy, light and laughter into everything.”
“Elf the Musical” runs through Jan. 6 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Regular Performances start at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday as well as 2 p.m. Friday, Nov. 23, Friday, Dec. 21 and Monday, Dec. 31. There will be audio-described performances for the blind and visually impaired at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28 and 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec.1 and a sign-interpreted performance at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6. There are no performances on Thursday, Nov. 22, Wednesday, Dec. 5 or Jan. 2 and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 19. Tickets begin at $59, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit tickets.olneytheatre.org.