As he honed the role of Samuel for the world premiere of the musical Grow earlier this year, Canadian-Iranian actor Izad Etemadi had no idea he’d be back at London’s Grand Theatre so soon. And this time, in a lead role.
Artistic director Dennis Garnhum, however, was already thinking seven months ahead. Among those thoughts: asking Etemadi whether he’d be interested in the role of Buddy in this year’s holiday production of Elf, The Musical.
“[During the run of Grow], my husband, Bruce, asked whether I’d settled on who would play Buddy,” Garnhum said. “I said I hadn’t. He said I think you’ve found him…. The very next day, [former executive director] Deb Harvey suggested the same thing. As Samuel, Izad showed he could charm you and entertain you. He had heart.”
“Dennis told me that story not long ago,” Etemadi said this week. “He sent an email [in spring] asking whether I’d consider playing the role of Buddy. I sent back a coy response: ‘Yes, I’d consider it. Please contact my agent.'”
Etemadi’s casual reply, however, belied his excitement about the offer. Aware of the physical demands of the role, he immediately began weekly voice lessons, which soon ramped up to twice-weekly. He learned the music over the summer and began memorizing lines three weeks ahead of rehearsals so that he could go off-book as quickly as possible.
“On a personal and emotional level, this is the kind of role I’ve always dreamed of getting to do,” Etemadi said. “I’ve found sometimes in musical theatre people didn’t always know what to do with me…. With Buddy, I get to sing, I get to dance, I get to make people laugh for two hours. But it also has so much heart; it’s the really moving story that drives the whole show forward. Fourteen-year-old me would be in shock right now… it’s fully a dream come true.
Script and songs aside, Etemadi says the physical demands of playing the energetic, unworldly Buddy are a challenge all their own.
“It’s a lot. It’s, straight up, two hours of me talking and singing and screaming non-stop, but I started the process really early, because it’s the first time I’ve been the lead-lead-lead of a show…. The big thing has actually been learning how to yell healthily on stage. Buddy is always very excited. It’s really easy to get swept up in that excitement and then shout improperly. There’s a lot of yelling in the first 20 minutes, so if you’re not doing that properly, the rest of the show is going to be really, really difficult. Also, you have to get it to a cadence that’s funny and not annoying. There’s a really fine line.”
Garnhum and Etemadi agree that audiences will expect certain lines and gags from the 2003 motion picture Elf, starring Will Ferrell, to show up on stage; however, the musical version doesn’t slavishly follow the hyperactive thrust of the film. Whereas the movie is steeped in frenetic realism, the musical version is more fantastical, honouring audience expectations but telling a more heart-rending story, Garnhum said.
“And I’m not 6-2,” said Etemadi. “I went into this thinking this is not going to be the Will Ferrell version; this is going to be my version. And that’s what I’m going to give to the audience. Because this is a musical adaptation, there are so many new things for the audience that, while they’re going to be familiar with the story, they’re not seeing the movie on stage.
“Emotionally, everything has to be played for real. It has to come from the heart…. It’s funny and it’s over the top and it’s silly, but it’s grounded in so much truth that, when it does get sad and when it does get moving, we’re all going to feel it as well. And that lets the funny stuff be even funnier. So I’m really hoping we can have justice for Buddy.
“It’s a challenging role, but this process with this company and this theatre has been one of the best that I’ve ever been in. Everything has gone smoothly, everyone is so positive … it’s been magic,” Etemadi said.
Elf, The Musical has a history at the Grand as being one of the theatre’s most successful shows. It boosted the institution’s bottom line in 2013, when former artistic director Susan Ferley directed and actor Liam Tobin played the role of Buddy. More than 20,000 tickets have already been sold for the current production, with shows extended to New Year’s Eve. It had originally been slated to close on Christmas Eve.
Elf: The Musical
Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin
Music by Matthew Sklar
Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Directed by Dennis Garnhum
Musical director: Alexandra Kane
The Grand Theatre, London, Ont.
November 22-December 31, 2022
Buy tickets here.
(More photos are available on freelance photographer Morris Lamont’s Facebook page. A preview of the show by London Free Press entertainment writer Joe Belanger is here.)