A long time ago, Christmas wasn’t about consumerism, about how much the retail industry’s yearly gross proceeds increased in the depressed economy, or about 100 toys under the tree, including the latest iterations of gaming and technological gadgets. Christmas was about dinner with your extended family. It was about love and sacrifice. If you were a kid you hoped and prayed for that one special toy that Santa via your parents just might bring if you connived and schemed and didn’t f*%k up during the 24 days before THE BIG DAY, when holiday preparation tensions ran high. This familiar plot about the most angst-ridden season of the year loops repetitively like boring musak through countless Christmas holiday books and films. Been there, done that, so what?
That is why the 1983 film classic A Christmas Story constantly amazes. The clever writing, interesting subplot twists, and great humor flip the hackneyed, vapid Christmas trope on its head and re-center the spirit of Christmas toward substance and meaning. As a result of its cult popularity, the Library of Congress selected the movie for preservation in the National Film Registry for being culturally/historically/aesthetically significant. Indeed, the film’s fan appeal inspired a musical adaptation, A Christmas Story, The Musical with book by Joseph Robinette and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. In a return engagement, it is currently at Madison Square Garden Theater until December 29. It’s a lovely instance of an adaptation that enhances an already wonderful original. That is a rare occurrence and makes A Christmas Story, The Musical a must-see, especially if you love the film.
The theatrical production lifts the story of the movie, reworks it a tad, and cleverly escalates the fun, joy and entertainment, while brilliantly retaining the film’s humor, vitality and enthusiasm. The madcap, rollicking tap numbers, dance hijinks and tuneful songs bring together the nostalgia of Christmas past and the events leading up to that special day for the struggling middle class Parker family living in Indiana in a simpler time between the late 1930s-early 1940s. Though it is not easy to improve upon the marvelous tenets and ethos of the film’s homely Americana, the musical starring Dan Lauria as narrator/radio host Jean Shepherd, John Bolton (the Old Man), Erin Dilly (Mother), Jake Lucas and Eli Tokash (the alternating Ralphies) and Caroline O’Connor (Miss Shields) manages to accomplish this task.
One reason is Dan Lauria. This fine actor brings his exceptional good will and talents to bear in relaying the true-life character of Jean Shepherd, radio host and author of In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, who lived in Indiana and whose childhood story this is. Lauria throws his full energies into Shepherd’s reminiscences. As each flashback scene unfolds, he watches, reacts and relives the segment.
The scenes count down the 24 days before Christmas, as nine-year-old Ralphie strategizes how he will get his parents to give him a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun. Lauria works fluidly with the play’s scenes, dance numbers, and songs. He is the glue, his ironic and erudite commentary both humorous and insightful. His sonorous, attentive-to-each-word delivery evokes Shepherd the writer, social critic and humorist.
Though kids may not be privy to all the nuances, the narrator’s intent will resonate with adults. Lauria’s contribution to the show’s vitality along with John Bolton’s priceless Old Man, Erin Dilly’s nurturing, loving Mother, Caroline O’Connor’s hysterical Miss Shields and the indomitable, energetic Ralphies (Jake Lucas, Eli Tokash) bring this musical on a fast track into your heart. You will be chortling and belly laughing along the way.
Another reason this production is exceptional is that John Rando’s direction and staging and Warren Carlyle’s choreography meld with the music so that both the singing and dancing appear seamlessly interwoven into the play’s action. There is little artificiality, little wooden stage activity, in fact little inactivity. When other musicals are about standing at the footlights “parking and barking,” the book, music and lyrics of A Christmas Story, The Musical offer the actors an opportunity to remain organically connected to their characters’ lives, heightening their believability and our enjoyment.
The song and dance numbers remain grounded in reality. The director has given the characters a solid, active life, from the Mother’s doing the housework and setting the table to the father’s fighting with his furnace and entering contests to win prizes. The direction throughout, especially of the musical numbers, evokes these characters’ everyday actions, hopes and dreams. The effect is a spot-on duplication of wholesomeness and familial warmth. It helps create the nostalgic atmosphere and reinforces our concern for Ralphie’s attaining his Christmas gift. We are engaged and in suspense until the end, no small feat for a two-hour show with an intermission. However, we are involved because these characters are very real, and we “get them.” It is a pleasure to spend time with the Parker family who function amidst all the chaos and trouble in an abiding love for each other.
Examples of Rando’s wonderful direction and the melding of staging and action are found during the songs “What a Mother Does,” “Sticky Situation,” and “The Genius on Cleveland Street.” The best of Rando’s direction and staging and Carlyle’s choreography return an extravaganza of song and dance. They represent the finest integration of story, music, lyrics and the energy of dance found in musical theater. Superlative song and dance numbers include “Ralphie to the Rescue,” A Major Award,” and the hysterical “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.”
Rando, the cast, and all in the artistic ensemble, including Larry Blank (orchestrations), Ian Eisendrath (music supervision), and Glen Kelly (dance music arrangements), create priceless onstage moments and magical Christmas memories for a new generation. After its limited run for the holiday season 2012, the musical was nominated for Outer Critics Circle Awards, Drama Desks and three Tonys. It is a shame it didn’t win. No matter. The production has already won many hearts in and beyond the New York theater community. I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a seasonal offering. Like the film, A Christmas Story, The Musical wherever it is performed will continue to attract a fan base. It conveys the spirit of an American Christmas that young and old can appreciate.