When in 1966, after three years of writing, humorist and broadcaster Jean Shepherd completed his novel In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. Many speculated it was a series of comic memoirs reflecting Shepherd’s own childhood, but the author insisted it was not. It was simply a series of short, comical episodes with a common theme of Christmas meant for WOR radio in New York and reprinted for Playboy magazine, all revolving around a fictional family in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana, though interestingly there are similarities to the author’s life.
Like the finished work, there was a Cleveland Street in Shepherd’s home town of Hammond, Indiana; there was also a Warren G. Harding elementary school in the town; many of the children’s character’s names are in Shepherd’s high school year book, and just like his nine-year-old alter-ego in the stories, Ralphie, his younger brother really was called Randy.
Unlike the now classic 1983 film upon which the show is based, in A Christmas Story: The Musical, those episode are framed by an open and close at WOR, and it’s the character of Jean Shepherd who narrates the story, bringing the images of his broadcasts to life while walking among the action like an unseen, benevolent Christmas spirit.
In the seasonally sparkling new production of A Christmas Story: The Musical, now playing at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until December 28, Shepherd is played with warmth and an extreme good-hearted nature by ABT regular Andy Meyers, and it’s he who walks us through the story as though he’s telling us of his own childhood at Christmas; one Christmas in particularly where a boy’s desire for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and a thing that tells the time is all–consuming.
But as is always the case in Peoria at the end of November and throughout December, the yuletide experience at ABT doesn’t begin and end with the show. Certainly, the performance is why you’re there, but that seasonal feeling of festive fun begins the moment you walk into the theatre’s decorated lobby; a huge tree reaching for the ceiling, colorfully adorned in Christmas ornaments stands guard before the auditorium entrance, heralding both the beginning of the evening and the season itself.
The reason why the show works as well as it does is because of how it reflects a cozy feeling of nostalgia we all have when we think of the overall spirit of a Christmas past. That all-too human habit of re-shaping memories to the point where it’s not so much the reality we remember but a nostalgic version of it causes us to recall events in a more positive light, and that’s exactly what Jean Shepherd tapped into when he began his broadcasts; it’s not really as Christmas used to be, but it’s how we like to remember it.
Most of what made the film popular is left intact in the show. As seen through the eyes of young Ralphie (played on alternate nights by either Tristan Klaphake or Easton Dana), dad is always referred to as The Old Man (David Johnson), continually harassed by the neighbor’s dogs, and whose salty, potty-mouthed language is an art unto itself, and Mother (Carolyn McPhee) who never appears to have time for herself at the dinner table as she continually attends to the wants, needs and the second helpings for the rest of the family during meal times.
Director and choreographer Stephen Casey keeps the action hopping as the show jumps from one family episode to another, each usually finishing with a big production number, often the result of Ralphie’s over-excited, seasonally fevered imagination as Christmas draws ever near. Like the best Christmas stories, once again it’s the anticipation of what the big day has in store that fuels the story’s Christmas magic, and it’s that feeling of unconstrained excitement that keeps Ralphie’s mind working overtime.
While the exuberant song and dance show-stopping sequences of Ralphie to the Rescue, the Old Man’s A Major Award and the tap-dancing extravaganza of You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out, fronted by Ralphie’s school teacher Miss Shields (Alyssa McGuigan) in a leg-revealing shimmering red dress, are fun and energetic, the best and most genuine Broadway number that doesn’t stop the show but advances it is the opening. It’s where the ensemble counts down to the holiday with It All Comes Down to Christmas, ending with everyone gathered in front of the huge window display at Higbee’s department store, downtown, looking in. The two best solo numbers both belong to mom, sung with heart and tenderness by McPhee as she sings with clarity of What a Mother Does, then later reflects on the passing of childhood with Just Like That.
Lottie Dixon’s period costume designs, Amanda Gran’s wigs and makeup, and Douglas Clarke’s detailed scenic design of the family home, lit by Heather Reynold’s atmospheric lighting and backed by W. Brent Sawyer’s music direction, all work together to create both a picture perfect look and sound of a Christmas card brought to glittering, musical life. With a truly delightful cast of talented, singing and dancing kids and the depiction of unforced warmth of a small town, average family that never at any point feels overly sentimental – achieved in no small part by the outstanding casting of Johnson and McPhee – ABT’s A Christmas Story: The Musical truly kicks off the Christmas season in the way you would want it to. It’s little wonder that Saturday evening’s audience responded to the show so quickly with a rousing chorus of cheers and approval from the very beginning.
And to complete the evening, after an outstanding meal from a diverse menu – never forget that ABT is also a dinner theatre – you get to meet the cast in the lobby after the show, ready to oblige with a selfie or two. Plus, if, like Ralphie and the Old Man, you’re looking for your own Red Ryder air rifle or that shapely female leg in a fishnet stocking and heels in the guise of a lampshade, you can enter a raffle to win your own. It must be Christmas.
Photos by Scott Samplin
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for ABT’s official website