by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Act II Playhouse on Butler Avenue in Ambler is offering a double dose of holiday fun. In addition to MAKING SPIRITS BRIGHT, the gang has put together a fun romp for the kid in us all: MURRAY THE ELF, AND THE CASE OF THE STOLEN SLEIGHBELLS—written by Carrie Nielsen and the theatre’s Education Director, Bill D’Agostino. Performances have been extended through December 28.

The lovable Murray returns for the third Christmas in a row to entertain the kiddies and their parents. In addition to his duties helping Santa at a local mall, Murray is on-call as a detective in Santa’s Toyland. Apparently, someone has stolen the magic sleigh bells that Santa needs to get him around the earth in one night to deliver all the toys. Christmas may have to be cancelled! Mrs. Claus puts in a frantic call to Murray and this elfin gumshoe is off to the North Pole to solve the case.

Joining me to review this production is 7-year old Justin Choseed, an avid theatre lover. Justin said the acting was “really good.” His particular favorite was Will Dennis, who returns as Murray: “He was really funny.” Bringing his considerable improv talents to the fore as he interacts with the young ones in the audience, Dennis is excellent at working off of what the kids give him—and he seems to love performing for them. Joining him is a new face to me—the very versatile Andy Shaw. A rubbery young comedic actor, Shaw nimbly switches gears throughout the 70-minute piece to play every person Murray encounters during his time in Toyland. Switching costumes and accents at breakneck speed, Shaw appears as Mrs. Claus, Rudolph’s grandson Rudy (also red-nosed), Gustav the Elf (who’s training under Murray), a hip-hop snowman and The Grinch—to name a few. Justin’s personal favorite was The Grinch, although he liked all of Shaw’s silly characters. Another favorite was Humphrey the Penguin, who likes to sneak up on Murray. According to Justin, “He’s great at hiding.” (And Justin knows from hiding!)

Director Tony Braithwaite keeps MURRAY THE ELF, AND THE CASE OF THE STOLEN SLEIGHBELLS moving at just the right pace, adding nice touches of shtick without going too far. He takes full advantage of both actors’ solid comedic abilities, while allowing them room to go with the flow of what each performance brings. They are so comfortable with each other and the plot, that when a couple of props acted up during the show we attended the actors were able to use it—and give us adults a bit of fun. Justin loved the audience participation aspect of the show, which was a new theatrical experience for him.

The action plays out on Maura Roche’s attractive set (also used by the MAKING SPIRITS BRIGHT ensemble); Dennis and Shaw take full advantage of the varied levels and assorted entrances. Melissa Murray has given the two quite festive and funny costumes—especially Shaw. Adapting his own SPIRITS lighting design, Shaw places the viewer’s attention where needed throughout MURRAY THE ELF, AND THE CASE OF THE STOLEN SLEIGHBELLS.

Borrowing small elements from British Pantos, Vaudeville and ’70s holiday TV specials, Nielsen and D’Agostino have crafted a fun bit of entertainment that will enchant the young ones and amuse their adults. The looks of excitement and laughter you will see on your kids faces—like the ones Justin’s mom and I saw on his—will make your holiday. But hurry—Murray and his friends won’t be around too long!

by Carrie Nielsen and Bill D’Agostino
Directed by Tony Braithwaite
December 20–28, 2014
Act II Playhouse
56 E. Butler Avenue
Ambler, PA 19002

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