Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 19, 2012
A Christmas Story The Musical Book by Joseph Robinette. Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Based upon the motion picture “A Christmas Story” Written by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark and “In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash” by Jean Shepherd. Directed by John Rando. Choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Set design by Walt Spangler. Costume design by Elizabeth Hope Clancy. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Ken Travis. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Animals trained by William Berloni. Orchestrations by Larry Blank. Cast: Dan Lauria, John Bolton, Johnny Rabe, Zac Ballard, and Erin Dilly, with Tia Altinay, John Babbo, Charissa Bertels, Grace Capeless, Zoe Considine, Andrew Cristi, Mathew deGuzman, Thay Floyd, George Franklin, Nick Gaswirth, Mark Ledbetter, Jose Luaces, Jack Mastrianni, Mara Newbery, Lindsay O’Neil, Sarah Min-Kyung Park, J.D. Rodriguez, Analise Scarpaci, Lara Seibert, Jeremy Shinder, Luke Spring, Beatrice Tulchin, Joe West, Kirsten Wyatt, and Eddie Korbich as Santa, and Caroline O’Connor as Miss Shields.
In that respect, there's no significant difference between this show and Elf (which just re-opened a block away), or other similar entertainments from recent years like White Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas that see festive publishing or Hollywood properties as yet more fodder for easy, one-dimensional audience attraction. It's put together by established theatrical hands (librettist Joseph Robinette; songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who burst onto the scene with Dogfight earlier this year; choreographer Warren Carlyle; and director John Rando), has some gravitas behind the scenes (producer Peter Billingsley starred in the film), and never dares stray as far as it should from its source.
What sets the film apart from the pack is its eggnog-thick combination of ingredients that seldom come together onscreen. Specifically: a suffusion (but not an overdose) of nostalgia, rendered by way of rich, honest charm. Derived from raconteur Jean Shepherd's tales (mostly from his novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash), the movie recreates a buoyantly upbeat, roughly Depression-era America we all want to believe used to exist, populated at its heart by a family we all want to believe we had (or could have). Intricate production design that instantly summons the small-town Midwest of Long Ago, melded with old-fashioned ideals and evergreen (and delightfully inconsequential) family squabblings, ensure the final product is at once of a time and timeless.
Yes, there's also its specific plot, about 9-year-old Ralphie Parker lusting after the Red Ryder BB gun no one wants him to have, and employing every method of subterfuge available to him — writing about it in a school assignment, hinting to his parents, asking a department store Santa Claus — to make it happen. But what you really remember are the tight-knit Parker family, Ralphie's idiosyncratic yet strangely recognizable schoolmates (from best friends to worst bullies), and the exuberance that exudes from the two-way portrayal of Ralphie from Billingsley and Shepherd, whose voiceover provided extra context and content for the heady, joyous look back.
Although all of these elements have been retained for the stage musical, none of them has retained more than a fraction of their original power. What you get instead are plastic and overeager approximations that hit all the expected marks in all the wrong ways.
Take, for example, Ralphie's father. Portrayed in the movie as a serious but loving patriarch, he's been rewritten and mugged through (by John Bolton) to become a grimacing goof. Radiating no authority, he evokes less a darker Ward Cleaver than a slightly more enterprising Homer Simpson. His "The Genius of Cleveland Street" and "A Major Award" seem to be about nothing more than showing just how naïve and stupid he is, which contributes neither additional depth nor laughs.
This is the kind of sloppiness you'd expect from an intentionally winking Fringe Festival parody, not an ostensibly on-the-level adaptation like this one. Giving Ralphie's mom (Erin Dilly, radiant but misused) two sweet songs about the difficulties of being a mother, Ralphie's school friends three sugar shock–inducing hoofing numbers ("When You're a Wimp," "Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana" on Christmas Eve, and "Sticky Situation" for the infamous tongue-on-a-flagpole scene), and dad the chance to lead a leg-lamp kickline in the irritating "A Major Award" do not add legitimacy to the evening, let alone suggest much creative thought. Walt Spangler's cheap-looking sets, Elizabeth Hope Clancy's December-generic costumes, and Howell Binkley's lights are barely improvements.
Worse still is that Shepherd has been turned into not only a main character, but the main character, with actor Dan Lauria interacting with and commenting on the events in Ralphie's life. This was delightful in the movie, because of how much care was given to the interplay between what's seen and what's heard; Shepherd and Billingsley are a comic dream team there, but all of the best choices, have been abandoned in the musical. (It doesn't help that Shepherd "played" the adult Ralphie, a crucial fact that's glossed over, and extremely poorly, onstage.)
Lauria can't kindle any sparks with his material, but he's a game participant in the pointlessness, as is everyone. Dilly gives the most successful performance overall, as Mother is the least screwed-with character, but the writing's clichés dog her at every turn. (One of her lyrics: "We're steady and stable / A meal on the table / Each evening, because / That's what a mother does.") Johnny Rabe is fine as Ralphie, singing decently and never bombing the jokes, but at his best he's unremarkable. Caroline O'Connor struts solidly through the role of Ralphie's teacher, but can't overcome the part's weighty overwriting.
There is, however, one true standout in the company. Luke Spring, O'Connor's partner during the speakeasy scene, is a virtuosic tapper. Clad in a dark jacket and a wide-brimmed fedora, he cuts a menacing figure that nonetheless melts your resolve to resist him — he's clearly a light-footed artist of the highest caliber, and the type of artist theatregoers should embrace at every opportunity.
Did I mention that Spring is nine years old? When a kid like that in a throwaway bit can steal the show away from everyone else, there's no surer signal of a problem with the show. But at least he jolts you to attention. The rest of this musical about a boy's quest for a firearm "with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time" is more likely to leave you wishing you still wore a watch you could stare at.