A Christmas Story, The Musical! | Live review
Parsing the layers of nostalgia in this new holiday musical, with designs on Broadway, is like peeling a Christmas-y onion. The stage show hopes to evoke warm feelings in the twenty– and thirtysomethings who grew up watching the 1983 film in its annual cable marathons; the movie itself, of course, was a nostalgia piece from the start, hearkening back to the Depression-era childhood of author Jean Shepherd, whose bemused, grandfatherly voiceover accounts for a great deal of the film's charm. With the film's Ralphie, Peter Billingsley, signing on to the producing team as, the show seemed to acquire an impenetrable shield against criticism. Not that it needs it—A Christmas Story, The Musical! is a worthy update.
Book writer Joseph Robinette and composersstrike a mostly successful balance between simply recreating Ralphie's adventures verbatim—when adapting a film this well known, there are lines of dialogue audience members just expect to hear word for word—and adding value. With its rose-colored view of "Hohman," Indiana and its heightened, slightly off-kilter rendering of childhood, A Christmas Story the film proves fertile material for musicalizing.
Pasek and Paul's accomplished score takes its cues at all the right places, finding songs in places both expected (Ralphie's Old Man and his "Major Award") and surprising, as when the dinner-table scene in which Mother gets Ralphie's brother Randy to eat like "Mommy's little piggy" offers up "What a Mother Does," a tender ode to parental practicality. Ralphie's repeated, breathless references to his coveted Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun become a leitmotif.
The authors solve the narration puzzle by framing the show with the adult Shepherd (Gene Weygandt) hosting his radio show. Without mimicking Shepherd, Weygandt suggests his timbre and folksy cadence. As Mother, Rachel Bay Jones captures the warmth of Melinda Dillon's film characterization while dialing down the daffiness, and John Bolton is terrific as The Old Man, whether engaging in droll physical comedy or leading a leg-lamp kick line.
As Ralphie, the open-faced Clarke Hallum shows tremendous vocal skill (see if you don't have "Ralphie to the Rescue" swimming through your head afterward). Hallum leads an astonishingly talented cadre of young actors, and director John Rando and choreographer Warren Carlyle put the kids through their paces. The show feels a little long—with the exception of Ralphie's Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, the script seems to touch on the film's every scene; surely another subplot or two could be shaved. But A Christmas Story, The Musical! has the potential to be a new perennial favorite.
. Book by Joseph Robinette. Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Dir. John Rando. With Clarke Hallum, Gene Weygandt, John Bolton, Rachel Bay Jones. 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.