Who needs the Elf on the Shelf when Baton Rouge has Buddy?
Buddy the elf's filled with an abundance of Christmas spirit, knows Santa personally and will be live for the next two weeks in LSU's Reilly Theatre when Playmakers of Baton Rouge stages "Elf the Musical Jr." starting Friday.
A cast of 24 kids will tell the story first brought to life by actor-comedian Will Ferrell in the 2003 movie, "Elf." The story was adapted for stage and made its Broadway debut in 2012 as "Elf the Musical."
Now Dawson Ponjuan is stepping into the lead role as Playmakers performs the musical's slightly shortened "junior" version. This is the 15-year-old Baton Rouge Magnet High School freshman's first leading role in a Playmakers production. It's a part that has taught him a few lessons along the way.
"Buddy is so positive about everything," Ponjuan says. "He sees the true spirit of Christmas, and since I've been in rehearsal, it's made me stop and think about what's really important in life."
And for Buddy, the most important thing is family. He lives among a family of elves in the North Pole, but everyone knows something is wrong. Buddy is taller — much taller — than the other elves, and he's awkward in such a human way.
Buddy's story begins when he was a baby. He accidentally crawls into Santa's bag of toys on Christmas Eve and isn't discovered until Santa's return the North Pole.
Santa and the elves decide to raise the child as an elf. Buddy doesn't learn until years later that he's actually human, and his father, Walter Hobbs, is a high-profile businessman in New York.
And Walter is in crisis. Why? He's on Santa's naughty list. Worse yet, Walter's young son, Michael, doesn't even believe in Santa.
So, Buddy sets out for America to save his birth family.
The show is directed by Playmakers alumnus Bailey Wax, who is making her musical directorial debut.
Wax is carrying on a family theatrical tradition with this production. Her dad, Jamie Wax, is probably best known for his original one-man productions in the area. He's now a CBS News contributor in New York. Her mom, Paige Parsons Gagliano, continues to direct local productions while working as the director of the performing arts program at Episcopal High School.
Bailey Wax, 23, majored in creative writing at LSU and has written original productions for Playmakers' last two summer tours.
Now it's her turn to be on the marquee.
"I grew up in Playmakers, and my friend and I used to sit in rehearsals saying, 'One day, we're going to be running things here,'" she says, laughing. "I've been directing the summer camp productions at the Manship Theatre, so this is actually a smaller cast for me."
The cast ranges in age from 7 to 18.
"And they're going at it 110 percent," Wax says. "Now, there are some differences between the movie and the musical. The biggest one is that there is no Papa Elf in the play. The show is narrated by Santa."
Playing Buddy's dad is 18-year-old Ethan Massengale, a senior at Episcopal High School. The Hobbs family is rounded out with 16-year-old Ashley Stevens as mom Emily Hobbs and 10-year-old Matthew Campbell as little brother Michael.
Stevens is a junior at Baton Rouge Magnet High, and Campbell is a fifth-grader at the Runnels School.
And playing Buddy's love interest is 17-year-old Baton Rouge Magnet High junior Tori LaCaze.
"When I learned I had an actual lead role in a musical, I teared up a little," she says. "Bailey and I sat down and talked about Jovie's character. She's moved across the country from Los Angeles to New York, and all of her problems are boy problems. She doesn't believe in love, and a guy in an elf outfit isn't her type."
But Buddy isn't an everyday guy.
"He changes the way she sees love and the world," LaCaze says.
Buddy's presence also brings changes to his birth family, especially his dad.
"Buddy changes everyone's life," Massengale says. "My character, Walter, is a bad dad, but he isn't purposely trying to be a bad husband or dad. He realizes that he isn't fulfilling these roles, and he's ashamed. Buddy opens his eyes and forces him to realize that family is more important than work."
And does Michael eventually develop a belief in Santa? Well, Campbell doesn't reveal that part, but he does say his character begins looking past his everyday world for answers.
"He only sees life as it happens around him every day," Campbell says. "The only relationship he knows with his dad is what happens in his everyday life, and that's normal to him."
Not for Buddy.
"Buddy is so optimistic, and he finds the positive in every situation," Ponjuan says. "I think everyone should have a little bit of Buddy inside them."
'Elf the Musical Jr.'
Playmakers of Baton Rouge's Christmas production
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16.
WHERE: Reilly Theatre, Tower Drive, LSU.
ADMISSION: $21, adults; $15.75, children.
TICKETS/INFORMATION: Call (225) 578-6996 or visit playmakersbr.org.