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Chicago by John Olson

A Christmas Story: The Musical
Chicago Theatre

Also see John's review of Elizabeth Rex

A Christmas Story
Clarke Hallum
Musicals are popular. So the idea of adapting a popular property into a musical seems irresistible to producers looking for a better-than-average bet for a profitable property. In reality, though, said producers might better be warned that they could "shoot their eyes out" in adapting anything as beloved as the 1983 feature film on which this musical is based. Deviate from the original and the devoted fans will cry foul; stay too close to it and people will ask why the property needed adaptation at all. The creators of A Christmas Story: The Musical went the latter route—the book by Joseph Robinette is pretty much cut and pasted from the film's screenplay based on stories by Jean Shepherd and, though the product isn't a fully organic musical in which the songs are essential to tell the story and establish characters, neither does the creative team shoot their eyes out.

There are moments in this show where the songs feel foisted upon the plot where they're not really necessary. Does Flick's acceptance of Schwartz's "triple dog dare" to lick a flagpole in sub-zero temperatures need a big number ("A Sticky Situation")? Or should the kids' bullying by Scut Farkus and Grover Dill spark a happy song ("When You're a Wimp") for the chorus of extremely talented kids? And does the dad's receipt of the fishnet stockinged-leg lamp, won in one of the many contest he's entered, merit a major production number ("A Major Award") that, even as cleverly staged and expertly danced as it is, goes on for way too long? No, these moments could stand on their own and simply be excised from the show without anyone missing them.

That said, there are other numbers that work very well at entertaining as well as telling the show. There's a terrific, classically musical-theater opening number called "Counting Down to Christmas" that establishes the feeling of anticipation for the big holiday, following a short Overture and preceding Ralphie's "I Want" song ("Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun"). The songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have an Alan Menken friendliness and catchiness about them that suits this sunny story perfectly, though they're all at nearly the same pace and energy level throughout the first act and start to feel a bit monotonous. The pace gets more varied and a bit of an arc emerges in the second act, as Ralphie starts to worry that he's not going to get his coveted BB rifle for Christmas. Then, the show—energetically directed and choreographed by Broadway's John Rando and Warren Carlyle, respectively—finally lets us stop and take a few breaths. There's an especially nice ballad for the mom (sweetly played by Rachel Bay Jones) that comforts Ralphie after his fight with Scut.

Also especially effective as a production number is Ralphie's flight into fantasy as he pictures himself a cowboy saving his loved ones from bad guys in "Ralphie to the Rescue." This production's Ralphie is an exceptionally talented and confident young performer by the name of Clarke Hallum. His high level of polish and poise works against the character of the hapless, bespectacled Ralphie—who only in his dreams has the confidence of such a snazzy song and dance performer. Rando and the writers might have found a way to better reconcile the audience expectations of a musical comedy leading man and the sweet little Ralphie as portrayed in the movie by Peter Billingsley (who is one of the producers of the five-city tour that is wrapping up with its Chicago stay).

In the film, narration was voiced over by Jean Shepherd, reading from the stories that inspired the screenplay. Here, Shepherd is on-stage (played winningly by Gene Weygandt) and reading his stories on a radio program, as he did in real life. His studio desk sits downstage right throughout the show—disappointingly blocking many of the show's scenes and big moments. (A word of warning to those who have yet to buy tickets: do not buy seats in the house left sections. Shepherd's sound effects guy is situated similarly downstage left, so house right may be problematic as well.) Broadway (Mamma Mia) and cabaret favorite Karen Mason is the schoolteacher, Miss Shields, with just one number, "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out," in which, as in the movie, she assumes the persona of the Wicked Witch of the West. The father is broadly played by John Bolton who in the early scenes is too far into Dagwood Bumstead territory for my tastes, but his bumbling man-of-the-house becomes touchingly wise by story's end. There, the family learns that, even without all the details of Christmas celebration falling perfectly into place, it's a great holiday when the family can observe it together. Shepherd's wise narration, through the lens of experience and greater maturity, reflects on the dual challenges of growing up and of parenting.

So, even if the show is a bit of a mixed bag, on balance it delivers the goods. The episodic gems from the movie are delivered lovingly and faithfully (Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costumes recreate Ralphie's plaid coat and other familiar designs from the movie). Many of those moments are enhanced by music and dance, and even those that feel extraneous are performed with great professionalism. Tying it all together are Shepard's words—smart, sensitive writing that is sentimental but not syrupy. If we have yet to find the Christmas musical perfect in all its details, this one has its heart in the right place and is unlikely to disappoint its intended family audience. As long as they sit in the center section.

A Christmas Story: The Musical will play the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St., Chicago, through December 30, 2011. For tickets, visit the box office, www.ticketmaster.com or call 312-932-9950. For more information on the tour, visit achristmasstorythemusical.com.


Photo: Carol Rosegg

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-- John Olson



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