I have to confess I’ve never been a big fan of the classic homespun holiday film A Christmas Story. While dotted with appealing characters and moderately amusing incidents, it lacks a narrative arc and ends with disappointing blandness. Give me Miracle on 34th Street, or even that great Twilight Zone episode where Art Carney plays Santa, any day.
So it came as a delightful surprise that the new musical version by Joseph Robinette (book) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) is such a cheerfully energetic treat. The show retains the movie’s abovementioned flaws but overcomes them with spangly, hummable music, clever lyrics, warm but not overdone sentiment, and a production powered by John Rando’s colorfully creative direction, Warren Carlyle’s spunky and humorous choreography, and a top-notch cast of winning adult actors, fabulous child performers, and even dogs.
For the uninitiated: It’s 1940 in Indiana, and as Christmas approaches, nine-year-old Ralphie desperately wants a special BB gun. All he ever hears from his mother, his teacher, and even a department store Santa, though, is “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
As our hero, Johnny Rabe has a superb voice to go with marvelous stage presence and enviable comic timing; if we didn’t already know from Annie that a kid could carry a Broadway musical, A Christmas Story would prove it. As Ralphie schemes to get his wish, we get to know his classmates and friends; the bullies who plague them; his teacher Miss Shields, jaded and sarcastic but with an inner vamp (played by a showstopping Caroline O’Connor); and especially his family.
Erin Dilly brings a gentle presence and a lovely voice to the role of Mother, and tiny Zac Ballard is charming and thoroughly professional as Ralphie’s finicky little brother Randy. Lanky John Bolton plays The Old Man, the boys’ put-upon, foul-mouthed father, with a Ray Bolger-esque swoop and excess that makes the stage character far more memorable than the film’s original.
The show is chock full of crowd-pleasing numbers and bits. The well-known set pieces from the movie are here: the tongue stuck to the flagpole, the leg lamp, and so on. But blown up Broadway style, these incidents take on a heavier mythic weight. “A Major Award,” the glitzy production number that blossoms around the lamp episode, is pure extravagant shiny-gold fun, layering on new layers of leg lamps and leg lamp choreography until we can only stare in wonder. The multiple segments of the big number “Ralphie to the Rescue” impressively reinforce this effective staging-by-layers technique.
As a group the children are a supremely winning constellation of stars. Various members of the talented company of kids have individual funny, mugging moments “Up On Santa’s Lap.” The jazzy dance showpiece “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” is a fine vehicle for Ms. O’Connor’s larger-than-life stage personality, but one heck of a tap dancing little boy named Luke Spring still manages to steal it.
Jazz also inspired the show’s best song, “The Genius on Cleveland Street,” while several of the more melodic numbers have more earworm potential than you find in the scores of most new musicals. This is Mr. Pasek and Mr. Paul’s Broadway debut but the impression it leaves is of old, sure hands. They get plenty of help from seamless technicals, sets, and costumes, and from Mr. Rando’s (Urinetown) warm-hearted and consummately crafted staging.
So take heart, fellow non-fans of the A Christmas Story movie. You can enjoy this show right alongside your Ralphie-obsessed friends this holiday season, and – if the movie is a good model – perhaps for many to come.