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ROCK ISLAND — A holiday wish has come true for Stephen James Potter, the tall, brash star of Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's new production of "Elf: The Musical."

The 6-foot-4, 25-year-old Connecticut native — who earned his bachelor's in musical theater at The Hartt School in Connecticut — has always wanted to play Buddy the Elf, immortalized on screen in the 2003 film of the same name starring Will Ferrell.

“I'm super tall, so I thought 'It's gonna happen someday',” Potter said this week of his Circa debut, bringing the musical back by popular demand two years after its first version.

“I don't want to do a carbon copy of what Will Ferrell did; it's so classic and iconic,” he said. “It's not what I was hired to do specifically. The musical has expanded the characters, so you get new information you can add. I feel like i'm trying to pay homage to some things he did, but my version of Buddy is a little more childlike, I think, than Will Ferrell's.”

“He really hits the essence of the character,” first-time Circa director Jeremy Littlejohn said of the pure, idealistic role. “He embodies it really well.”

“Buddy, because he was raised by elves, he wasn't jaded. He kept the childlike innocence and the magic that Christmas represents, that a lot of adults lose as they grow up,” Potter said. “As a character, he brings that reminder back to the other characters. I have to find that in myself again, and do it truthfully. I think it's easy to make it campy. His innocence, and who he is, isn't the joke of the play. That's the hard part, of trying to make that excitement real.”

In the story, the young orphan Buddy mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts and is transported to, and eventually raised in, the North Pole. Buddy is unaware that he's actually a human and not an elf, until his enormous size and poor toy-making abilities cause him to face the truth.

He embarks on a journey to New York City to find his birth father and discover his true identity. When faced with the harsh realities that his father, Walter, is on the naughty list and his half-brother, Michael, doesn’t even believe in Santa, Buddy is determined to win over his new family and help all of New York remember the true meaning of Christmas.

“Elf” disguises itself “as a fluff piece, but it's not really,” said Littlejohn — who played Santa in Circa's 2017 production and is in his second year leading the Myers Dinner Theatre in Hillsboro, Ind. (halfway between Indianapolis and Champaign, Ill.)

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“It's got a lot of in-depth commentary on family and how important that is. There's a lot of really great life lessons in this thing," he said. "I think it's just a charming movie; it's one of those cult things, like 'A Christmas Story.' People feel very strongly about 'Elf'."

Buddy reminds Walter and his family how important family is, "to take time to be with each other,” Potter said. “He reminds them of the magic they forget.”

Potter's credits include playing Lurch in “The Addams Family” at Derby Dinner Playhouse, and several shows (“Cinderella,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Peter Pan,” “Aladdin,” and “Winnie The Pooh") at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, N.H.

“I like the people — it's a great group,” he said of the Circa cast. “We get along very well, which doesn't always happen. It's very nice when you have a group of people who actually like each other. It creates a supportive environment.”

Littlejohn said: “I had a great time last time; it was a great group of people. It's a fun show to do. It's right up my alley — I'm pretty much a comedian in my life. This is a very funny story.”

The show also reunites others from Circa's 2017 production, including veterans Tom Walljasper and Erin Churchill, reprising their roles as Walter and his wife, Emily.

“I made it clear from Minute One, we're not doing a remount,” Littlejohn said. “We're not looking to emulate the choices of a group of people you've never met. We're doing our own thing here, and it's gonna be just as great, just as fun.”

In the new cast, Julian Anderson and Brennan Hampton are alternating performances as Michael. The group also features Jacob Clanton, Sam Forgie, Sarah Hayes, Janos Horvath, Al Jackson, Barry Kramer, Brooke Myers, Kirsten Sindelar, Miranda Sloan, Tristan Tapscott, Haley Teel and Shelley Walljasper,

"Elf: The Musical" debuted on Broadway in 2010, with songs by Tony Award nominees Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin (Disney’s "Aladdin"), with a book by Tony winners Thomas Meehan ("Annie," "The Producers”) and Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone).

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