A Christmas Story, The Musical
Book by Joseph Robinette, Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Directed by Matt Lenz
Originally Directed on Broadway by John Rando
Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
The Fox Theatre
December 17, 2014
A Christmas Story, the film, quickly became a holiday classic, to the point where some people make it a tradition to watch it every year, and cable channels show marathons of it in the holiday season. In light of the trend of making movies into stage musicals, A Christmas Story seems an obvious choice, and the resulting show was nominated for the Tony for Best Musical in 2013. The US National Tour, currently running at the Fox Theatre, is a fun, well-cast production that celebrates the highlights of the movie and manages to find new angles to the story, as well.
The musical covers all the familiar ground of the film, based on the stories of author Jean Shepherd. Shepherd is a faceless narrator of the action in the film, but here he appears (played by Chris Carsten) hosting his New York radio show and telling the story as a reflection of Christmases past. Shepherd doesn’t simply narrate, either. He appears throughout the story commenting on the action and occasionally interacting with the characters. The focus of Shepherd’s story is Ralphie Parker, who is played at alternating performances by Evan Gray and (at the performance I saw) Colton Maurer. He lives in a small town in Indiana in 1940 with his mother (Susannah Jones), his “Old Man” (Christopher Swan) and younger brother Randy (Cal Alexander), and all he wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun. The story echoes the film for the most part, following Ralphie’s quest to convince the adults in his life–such as his parents and his teacher, Miss Shields (Avital Asaleen)–that the coveted air rifle would be the ideal gift for him.
Many of the famous situations from the film are here, from the flagpole incident involving Ralphie’s friends Flick (Christian Dell’Edera) and Schwartz (Johnny Marx), to the bullying by Scut Farkus (Brandon Szep) and Grover Dill (Seth Judice), to the visit to the department store Santa (Andrew Berlin) and more. The Santa scene gets a production number, “Up On Santa’s Lap” and a chorus of elves. It’s more comic than terrifying (as the film scene was), but it works for the stage. Other incidents that get clever musical treatment include the arrival of the infamous leg lamp, which becomes “Major Award”, hilariously choreographed and danced by Swan and the lamp-toting ensemble, including the lamps in their kick line. The fantasy sequences are handled well, too, with “Ralphie to the Rescue” casting Ralphie as an old time Western hero, saving his teacher and classmates from the bad guys with his trusty Red Ryder air rifle. There’s also a fun dance sequence in Act 2 with the jazzy “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”, taking Miss Shields and Ralphie’s classmates to an imaginary Speakeasy, and featuring spectacular tap dancing by Asaleen and featured tapper Judice, leading the energetic ensemble of kids. The show’s score is strong, for the most part, with the recurring theme of “It All Comes Down to Christmas” a hummable highlight, and a few songs that showcase Ralphie’s mother, like “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That”. In fact, the parents seem to be a bigger presence in this show than in the film, although Ralphie is still the main focus.
Since this is Ralphie’s story as told by Jean Shepherd, the casting of those two characters is critical for the success of this show, and this production gets it right. Carsten is amiable and enthusiastic as Shepherd, with a strong presence and some good moments throughout the show, and young Maurer is impressive as the determined, single-minded Ralphie. He’s a thoroughly engaging protagonist, and even though he stumbles a little on the words to “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun”, he demonstrates a strong voice and great energy. As Ralphie’s parents, Swan and Jones are also excellent, with Swan delightfully hamming it up in his big dance number, and Jones in excellent voice on her more gentle ballads. Asaleen gets a great showcase as Miss Shields in the aforementioned “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”, and the kids’ ensemble is also very strong.
The look of the show is classic and Christmassy, evoking the film but also stylizing it a bit. Walt Spangler’s original design has been adapted for the tour by Michael Carnahan, with its snow globe-like backdrop and snowy-roofed multi-level house for the Parkers. The scenery is also cleverly adapted in some of the fantasy sequences, such as when Miss Shields’ desk acquires wheels and becomes a covered wagon. The costumes, adapted by Lisa Zinni from Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s original designs, are colorful and evocative, as is the striking atmospheric lighting originally designed by Howell Binkley and adapted by Charlie Morrison.
Overall, this show accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s an entertaining holiday show that celebrates the famous film without strictly copying it. Personally, I’ve only seen the film in its entirety once (in addition to numerous clips), but my impression is that this show seems to capture much of the spirit of the film while expanding the story a bit, especially the focus on the parents. With a strong, likable cast and a fun visual theme, it’s a sweet, funny and nostalgic story for all ages.