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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Christmas Story
Finds its Voice at the 5th Avenue Theatre

Also see David's reviews of Ham For the Holidays and Holiday Glee

A Christmas Story
Matthew Lewis, Anne Allgood and
Clarke Hallum

Every year lately there seems to be a new musical version (or two) of a perennial Christmas movie classic that hopes to score big and maybe make it to Broadway, as well as saturating local markets. A Christmas Story, the cozy yet zany nostalgia laced eighties film which has had marathon showings on cable for several years running, premiered in 2009 in a Kansas City Rep production that. Though well-received, the show has been rethought and has a new book and score in the incarnation running through December 2010 at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre. Opening after several weeks of paid previews recently, all signs point to a very successful run. This production, cannily directed by Eric Rosen and engagingly choreographed by Kelly Devine, both vets of the Kansas City version, has a whole lot going for it, though cosmetic work can still be done to insure its status as a holiday theatre perennial.

Joseph Robinette's book closely follows the film screenplay based on humorist Jean Sheperd's book "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" about young Ralphie, a Midwest boy with an obsession for getting a bb gun for Christmas (even though his mother and almost every adult he tells warns that he will "Shoot your eye out!"). The musical opts for a clever framing device of Sheperd himself becoming an onstage presence, as the story is framed like an old-time radio production, with actors providing sound effects and so on, and there is also a four-person omnipresent quartet offering musical asides throughout. The music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have a Broadway sheen, neat rhyming structures, and hummable melodies (the tunes are so redolent of golden age Broadway that there is even an old-style overture, which showcases Larry Blank's expert orchestrations), but there are just a few too many of them, and it feels like every major (and some minor) moment of the tale is set to music. With a story so surefire and familiar to so many, this doesn't always seem necessary. But the opening night 5th Avenue crowd cheered every number as though it were the second coming, and certainly the cast and production given the show make it worth cheering for.

After a major talent search that included L.A. and New York, the producers cast Olympia, Washington, child actor Clarke Hallum as the precocious and fanciful Ralphie, and Hallum is the real deal. Called upon to sing more than even Annie or Oliver Twist do in their respective musicals, the clarion-voiced Hallum is more than up to the task, whether it is taking the lead in the major fantasy show-piece number "Ralphie to the Rescue," or showing a more tender side in the wistful "Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana," Hallum scores a TKO. He is also appealingly natural and never cutesy, and fellow youngster Matthew Lewis is a solid sidekick as kid-brother Randy. As the boy's Old Man, John Bolton successfully makes Darrin McGavin's career-capping role his own, raising the rafters with vocally commanding renditions of "The Genius on Cleveland Street" and the terrifically funny number "A Major Award," where Kelly Devine's comic choreography reaches a zenith with the ensemble employing a plethora of leg lamps (a lamp in the shapely form of a woman's leg is Dad's big contest winning prize) for a kick-line. His rapport with both the child actors as well as with Anne Allgood's mother is also exceptional. Allgood (who has had her praises sung by this scribe many times) is the warm, though still abundantly comic, heart of the show, and Pasek and Paul have given her two standouts, "What A Mother Does" and "Just Like That," which had many a show goer wiping a tear away. The family unit in this production is so strong, that unless the boys outgrow their roles, all four should recreate their roles when the show arrives on Broadway down the road. And for that matter, so should Frank Corrado whose Jean Shepherd is the perfect narrator for the occasion. Corrado has a wonderful, wry way about him that keeps the proceedings from tipping over the edge into sentimentality.

As Ralphie's school teacher Miss Shields, Carol Swarbrick makes the one-dimensional old biddy a fresh creation, and is the centerpiece of one fantasy moment that is comic genius (spoiler alert! Her cohorts in said sequence are winged monkeys). As the quartet, Jadd Davis, Candice Donehoo, Brandon O'Neill and Billie Wildrick harmonize like a dream. Other standout ensemble members include Matt Wolfe, who scores as a dismal department store Santa, and Orville Mendoza, who tickles as a Chinese restaurant host.

Walt Spangler's set neatly combines both the realistic and fanciful sides of the story and is handsomely famed by the radio studio imagery. Howell Binkley's lighting dazzles, and Elizabeth Hope Clancy's Saturday Evening Post flavored costumes are just right. Ian Eisendrath's musical direction is immensely satisfying, and the mega-talented 14-piece orchestra sounds like twice that many.

With some canny pruning and trimming, I would be happy for A Christmas Story to go the distance and become the holiday themed musical perennial it so clearly wants to be.

A Christmas Story runs through December 30th at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Tickets: (888) 584-4849, www.5thavenue.org.


Photo: Chris Bennion

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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