A Christmas Story: The Musical – Theatre Review, National Touring Company, ASU Gammage, Tempe

Christmas poster

Until the popular 1983 Bob Clark film A Christmas Story came along, Hollywood didn’t really have a Christmas movie industry; at least, not in the way we think of it today.  The 40s and 50s classics were certainly there, and there was always the occasional warm-hearted weepie from Hallmark for the small screen, but for the big screen, Christmas was generally reserved for the grander, more prestige pictures, vying for voting season.  In fact, even A Christmas Story was originally released long before the holidays and gone from theatres once Christmas arrived.

Considering how well-known the story of young Ralphie Parker and his 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 has become, the idea of seeing it as a musical with songs shoehorned in – even for musical buffs – might have seemed odd.  Could the modest, home-spun story of Ralphie work with songs, grand productions numbers and even, gulp, tap-dancing?   The answer, thankfully, is a surprising, yes.  Those big numbers don’t exactly enhance the story – they’re show-stoppers in every sense of the word – but they’re colorful, spectacular, and a ton of fun.  Because of repeated viewings, seeing characters that have become so well-known is here akin to watching old friends who’ve suddenly taken singing and dancing lessons and they want to tell their story all over again.

Christmas 1

Presented with a giant, round-shaped, snow falling backdrop that makes everything look as though it’s happening within a seasonal snow globe, the strength of A Christmas Story: The Musical is that it changes almost nothing from what we already know.  The time is somewhere between the late thirties and early forties in the fictional Indiana town of Hohman.  Thanksgiving is gone, November is in the past, and the most important event in any kid’s year is just 24 days away: wonderful, glorious Christmas.

Adapted for the stage by Jospeh Robinette, the plot of nine year-old Ralphie (played on alternate nights by Dylan Boyd and Myles Moore) and his desire for that Red Ryder BB gun is the same, and so are the subplots.  Dad, always referred to as the Old Man (an energetic Christopher Swan), wins that familiar prize lamp in the guise of a shapely female leg in a fishnet stocking and heels; the two dogs belonging to the next door neighbors, the Bumpuses, continue to harass the Old Man each time he arrives home from work in the evening; Mother (a hugely likable Susannah Jones) goes to town with a bar of soap when Ralphie accidentally declares “Fudge!” only it wasn’t fudge that he said;  and everyone, including school teacher Miss Shields (broadly though effectively played by Avital Asuleen) and the department store Santa (a funny Daniel Smith), tells Ralphie, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”  There’s even the spectacular triple-dog dare when it comes to licking a frozen school-yard flag pole.

Christmas 6

Unlike most films where the overuse of a voice-over narration often gets in the way, the pleasure of hearing author and humorist Jean Shepherd’s anecdotal comments was essential and became a character in of itself.  The danger of a live presentation is, how do you include those priceless comments from the author without all of that talking getting in the way?  In the musical. the narration frames the story.  It’s New York City, and Jean Shephard (a gentlemanly and comforting Chris Carsten) is on the air, broadcasting live from WOR radio with his annual Christmas Eve show.  From behind the mic he recants his story of earlier days as he waxes nostalgically of his childhood in Indiana and the most important Christmas of his life.  Then we’re off to Indiana, to the home of the hardworking but content Parkers on Cleveland Street with Mother, the Old Man, Ralphie and his kid brother, Randy (Josh Turchin) as they prepare for that annual trip downtown to see what’s in the storefront Christmas display window at Higbees.

All the familiar quips of dialog are there.  The Old Man’s potty-mouthed obscenities are still hanging in space somewhere over Lake Michaigan, while his on-going battle with the home’s heating system continues to make him one of the fiercest furnace fighters in northern Indiana.  Plus there are new quotables.  When the family gets ready to choose the living room tree, the Old Man says, “We’ll pick the tree together and if I like it, we’ll get it.”

Christmas 5

The songs with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are likable and occasionally surprisingly spectacular.  The opening and arguably the best number, Counting Down To Christmas is pure Broadway as the family readies itself for the trip downtown.  The tap dancing sequence in the second half, born of Ralphie’s fevered imagination in the classroom, takes on almost surreal quality as the whole class, dressed as pint-sized, sharply dressed gangsters, dance in a prohibition-era Speakeasy.  It looks like a sequence that was cut from Bugsy Malone and boosted to a more colorful level for A Christmas Story, with Miss Shields way out front, leading the cast while wearing a leg revealing red, shimmering dress and pumps.

The thing that makes A Christmas Story work so well, both as a film and in this dazzling, colorful, live musical, is that warm, comforting feeling of a nostalgia for Christmas of the past.  Even if our childhood memories of the season weren’t quite like Ralphie’s, it’s how we like to remember them.  But the show goes one step further than the film, and even though it lasts just a couple of moments, it makes all the difference.  During the final minutes, as Mother and the Old Man sit quietly in their modest living room on Christmas night, bathing together in the warm glow of the reds, greens and blues of the Christmas tree lights, our narrator points out that back in those days you never asked yourself, do my parents love me?  “It never crossed your mind,” he states.  “Their job was to raise you, your job was to let them.” 

Christmas 7

 

At the time of writing this review, like the lyrics to the opening song, Thanksgiving will soon be over and November is almost done.  After the 29th, so too will A Christmas Story at ASU in Tempe.  Treat yourself and the family to an early Christmas gift before it closes and moves on.  As everyone grows older, you’ll have neither the memories of a 40’s childhood nor experience a trip to Higbees, but in later life you may reflect back and wax nostalgically about that time dad took you to Gammage.  After all, it’s dad’s job to take you, it’s your job to let him.

For more times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the official ASU Gammage website.

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