“I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time!”
If you know that quote, you know A Christmas Story, the 1983 movie thats played for 24 hours straight on cable channel TBS every Christmas Eve. The movie is narrated by Jean Shepherd, whose stories of growing up in Northern Indiana form the backbone of the plot. The film was not a hit when it was released, but since TBS started showing it on repeat more than two decades ago, it’s become one of America’s most beloved holiday tales.
And now there’s a Broadway musical version.
What? Why? How on earth? Can anyone do The Old Man more justice than the late, great Darren McGavin? Can any kid best Peter Billingsley as protagonist Ralphie Parker? How can you create A Christmas Story without the ubiquitous voice of Shep, who passed away in 1999? Who would do such a thing? I had to find out.
Not only is A Christmas Story my favorite Christmas movie, Jean Shepherd was always a presence in our household when I was growing up. My dad had all of his books and since we lived too far south to hear Shep’s radio broadcasts on New York’s WOR, my uncle would tape them on reel-to-reel tapes and mail them to Dad. Listening to Shep make my dad laugh; that’s one of my cherished childhood memories.
So, when I decamped to New York last week with my business partner — we license our own Christmas show — to check out the competition, as it were, I was waiting for a train wreck of the first order.
And whaddaya know — I loved every second of A Christmas Story, the Musical! Every second!
From the first musical number through to the last note, this is a lovely, warm, frothy, funny treat. It’s sweet without being treacly, faithful to the source material without being hidebound, and perhaps best of all, it’s a love note to one of America’s all-time great master storytellers.
The music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul capture the characters wonderfully. There’s never a time when any of the children sing anything you wouldn’t expect a child to sing. For wunderkind, they’re quite refreshing because they are not trying to showcase themselves; they’re uniformly showcasing the material and the performers. One senses that Pasek & Paul are likely to join other American musical ampersands: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Kander & Ebb.
It’s hard to come up with a favorite number, but “Major Award” is a standout — as is Warren Carlyle’s inventive and hysterical choreography — and “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” featuring a jaw-dropping performance by a tap dancing China doll named Luke Spring — are two out-of-the-ballpark hits. A lovely closing number, “A Christmas Story,” is the bow on the present that is this heart-warming show.
It’s hard to cast a show full of kids if you want the show to be good, but it’s happened here. All of the children are wonderful performers, none of them mug too much, none of them are ever out of the moment. That’s a tribute to Stephanie Klapper’s casting as much as it is to John Rando’s note perfect direction.
Dan Lauria (as Jean Shepherd) is the glue that holds this concoction together. He’s a lovely, fatherly presence as he glides into and out of scenes to add Shep’s voice to the proceedings. John Bolton is a rubbery and fluid Old Man, warmer than Darren McGavin, but perhaps not as wry. It’s not a quibble; McGavin’s Old Man was sui generis, one of the epic cinematic characterizations of the later 20th century. That Bolton makes you forget McGavin from time to time is a testament to this fine performer.
Erin Dilly is a wise presence as Ralphie’s mother, a genuine benevolent presence in her sons’ lives, with just the right hint of wit. She’s particularly good when paired with Zac Ballard as Ralphie’s impish younger brother Randy, who completely captivated me.
Jeremy Shidler as Flick, Jack Mastrianni as Scut Farkas and John Babbo as Grover Dill are standouts among the children and Andrew Cristi has Broadway’s non-politically correct turn of the year as the hilarious singing waiter at the Parkers’ impromptu Christmas dinner in the Chinese restaurant.
But, if you don’t have a good Ralphie, you can hang it up. And Johnny Rabe was a letter-perfect, note-perfect Ralphie. It was lovely to watch as he tried to convince his parents’ that a Red Ryder BB gun would help them stave off the unsavory elements around fictional Hohman, Indiana. He’s a genuinely gifted young man — already a triple-threat — and it will be exciting to see him grow into a powerhouse performer as an adult. As it was, at his age, holding a Broadway show together well, that’s no mean feat.
Everything you love from the movie, every crazy little memory from the “pink nightmare” to the can of Simonize, from clinkers in the furnace to Lifebuoy soap, from the triple-dog dare to the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse, Victor, from the trip to Higbee’s department store to helping the Old Man change a flat tire — they’re all there — even a couple of Bumpass hounds, too!
John Rando, Pasek and Paul and this fine company realize that they’ve been given the stewardship of something special and they have set out to show that there is still room in the theatre for a feel-good and heartfelt cockle-warming retelling of one of America’s very best holiday stories. I hope there will be shouts of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” in the theatre for years to come.
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