“A Christmas Story,” a musical based on the beloved holiday movie about a Midwestern family during the Depression, does “Annie” one better: It features TWO actual dogs rather than one, and maybe twice as many talented kids. It also has more elves than “Elf,” more child gangsters than “Bugsy Malone,” and a chorus line that has more kicks than the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes – or at least theatergoers are just as sure to get a kick out of it. But, if it more than holds its own with the other entertainments vying for the family dollar during the holiday season, “A Christmas Story” is more than just a Christmas story.
Yes, in the musical as in the movie, nine-year-old Ralphie Parker of Hohman, Indiana dreams of convincing his parents to buy him a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle for a Christmas gift in 1940, even while he knows what their response is going to be: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
But both the movie and the musical come from a series of semi-autobiographical stories by master humorist Jean Shepherd collected in two of his books, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” and “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories.” Very few of the original stories have anything to do with Christmas. (Even the pivotal Christmas turkey is in the original story an Easter ham!) What we have here are some charming stories that prove the age-old wisdom that kids are sneaky and mischievous and that parents are ridiculous – but in a good way. Those who appreciate the off-kilter tone of the film might be reassured to realize that the director of the musical is John Rando, the man who directed the refreshingly oddball “Urinetown.”
Indeed, though purists might regret some omissions from the movie (no decoder ring), the creative team has not just smartly adapted the movie to the musical stage; in many ways, they have enhanced it.
What is a voiceover in the movie is a narrator now, almost a doppelganger, frequently standing next to his younger self. This Jean Shepherd character is played by Dan Lauria, ideal not just because of his next-generation-Walter Mathau slouch and basset-hound face, but also because he played the dad in “The Wonder Years,” a TV show that used a similar technique – the future adult narrating his thoughts and feelings during childhood tests, triumphs and traumas.
When the musical’s dad (a rubbery Jim Bolton) wins a lamp shaped like a woman’s leg, it is time for “A Major Award,” featuring that Rockette-like kick-line using legs from the lamps – perfectly over-the-top, tremendously funny.
“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” is of course a song, but it’s an elaborate number choreographed with what used to be called pizzazz by Warren Carlyle and featuring the teacher (Caroline O’Connor) as a Bebe Neuwirth-type long-legged babe, and the entire cast of children dressed as gangsters and molls, the main purpose of which seems to be to showcase an astonishing pint-sized tap-dancer that I promise you we will be hearing about in the years to come – the aptly-named Luke Spring, who is nine years old.
But there are smaller moments too that are wonderful. What’s best about “A Christmas Story”, in fact, is often not the ways in which it’s more, but the ways in which it’s less. When Mother (Erin Dilly) struggles to put a snowsuit on her younger son, it is harder to imagine getting more laughs out of the attempt. When in “The Genius of Cleveland Street,” Dad is trying to think of a clue to a crossword puzzle that begins “Peter,” Mother keeps on hitting a pan, until he finally gets it – Peter Pan. The sound of the beating of the pan is incorporated into the beat of the song.
Such cleverness is a mark of A Christmas Story’s young composer-lyricist team, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, making their Broadway debut (they recently debuted Off-Broadway in “Dogfight”) It’s unlikely that any of their dozen and a half songs in the musical are going to hack their way through the very tough competition to becoming Christmas standards, but that is somewhat to their credit. Their aim here is to serve the stories. Their songs certainly don’t get in their way.
There are holdovers from the movie that I could do without –the scene with the singing Chinese waiter skirts dangerously close to a mocking stereotype – and some additions for the stage that don’t thrill me. Walt Spangler’s set features an unattractive, cheap-looking and ever-present frame of white – as if the producers were screaming: “We’re in a winter wonderland folks; this is a Christmas show!”
But fans of the 1983 movie get what they came for – yes, the show has the pink-bunny suit incident, and the tongue stuck to the flag-pole episode, with the unfortunate victim attempting to sing! And those of us who identify more with Grinch or Scrooge, and would sooner move to Abu Dhabi than watch another TBS holiday marathon, experience something of a miracle on 46th Street: “A Christmas Story” features kid performers –Johnny Rabe as Ralphie, Zac Ballard as his younger brother Randy and most of the rest of the cast – that actually seem like kids, in a show that, for all its aggressive Christmas credentials, holds light on the treacle.
A Christmas Story, the Musical
At the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th Street
Book by Joseph Robinette; music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; based on the motion picture “A Christmas Story,” by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark, and the book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” by Shepherd
Directed by John Rando; choreography by Warren Carlyle; sets by Walt Spangler; costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy; lighting by Howell Binkley; sound by Ken Travis; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; animals trained by William Berloni
Cast: Dan Lauria (Jean Shepherd), John Bolton (the Old Man), Johnny Rabe (Ralphie), Zac Ballard (Randy), Erin Dilly (Mother) and Caroline O’Connor (Miss Shields).
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with one 15 minute intermission)
A Christmas Story is scheduled to run through December 30th.