A Christmas Story, The Musical: Theater Review

Johnny Rabe
No coal in the Christmas stocking for this entertaining family show, which sticks close to its source material while establishing an engaging personality of its own.

Smartly retooled for the stage from the 1983 MGM holiday movie (a perennially popular December cable staple), this nostalgic tale set in 1940 follows a bespectacled Indiana kid's quest to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.

NEW YORK – Leaving aside It’s a Wonderful Life, I confess my tolerance for holiday movies is pretty low. Likewise for holiday musicals. But A Christmas Story wore down my defenses. A cut above the pack, it’s cute, corny, wholesome and sentimental – all basic requirements for family-friendly seasonal stage entertainment. But it also packs ample heart into its wistful glance back to a time when rewards were simpler, communities were closer-knit and both parental and filial roles were less polluted by the infinite distractions and anxieties of contemporary life. In short, a time when happiness was just a Christmas gift away.

Despite its principal setting being 1940, the show is a bonanza for ‘80s nostalgists. It faithfully follows the slender plotline of the popular 1983 MGM movie – a perennial holiday cable favorite – resurrecting just about every one of the film’s most iconic moments. And as a genial guide through that story, it enlists Dad from The Wonder Years, Dan Lauria. In a neat touch of full-circle involvement, Peter Billingsley, the former child actor who played the central role of Ralphie onscreen, is among the lead producers.

The show comes to New York after successful regional tour stops and a sit-down Chicago run in 2011. Sturdily adapted by Joseph Robinette, it features a peppy, period-flavored score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. With their catchy lyrics and robust melodies, the songs strengthen the characters and situations, dropped in at just the right time to enhance and propel the story. Following their off-Broadway bow this summer with Dogfight, this marks a promising Broadway debut for the gifted young composing team.

Lauria plays Jean Shepherd, the writer and radio personality whose book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, served as the basis for A Christmas Story. Solving the problem of translating a voiceover-heavy movie to the stage, Shepherd frames the tale as a personal reminiscence during a Christmas Eve radio broadcast from New York City many years later.

He takes us back to Hohman, Ind., on Dec. 1, 1940, when 9-year-old Ralphie Parker (Johnny Rabe) has 24 days to convince his parents to buy him an Official Red Ryder Range Model Carbine Action BB Gun. (There’s a slightly disturbing sense that this plot driver might win the show NRA approval, but what the hell.) As the movie’s fans know, the chief obstacle to Ralphie fulfilling his dream is the warning of seemingly every adult in town: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” That view is shared by Ralphie’s Mom (Erin Dilly), his teacher, Miss Shields (Caroline O’Connor), and by a grumpy department store Santa (Eddie Korbich).

Pasek and Paul spin this simple act of coveting a toy into a handful of delightful songs. There’s the seed-planting of “It All Comes Down to Christmas” and “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun,” and the yippee ki-yay cowboys-and-Indians fantasy of “Ralphie to the Rescue!” And yes, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” gets rendered in song, a 1930s gangsters-and-molls interlude with shades of Bugsy Malone, led by a vamping Miss Shields. The scene-stealer in this splashy big-band production number is pint-sized tap-dancing dynamo Luke Spring.

In these songs and others, director John Rando and choreographer Warren Carlyle’s clever use of the dozen talented triple-threat kids in the cast is a winning ingredient.

On the surface, Robinette’s work as book writer might appear elementary, but it takes skill to cover every vignette from a movie without merely checking obligatory references off a list.

Seamlessly woven into the narrative fabric are the encounters of Ralphie and his fellow wimps with the school bullies; the triumph of Ralphie’s Old Man (John Bolton) in a crossword contest that wins him a spectacularly ugly fishnet-stockinged-leg lamp; the utterance of a verboten curse word that earns Ralphie a mouthful of soap; the “Sticky Situation” when his friend Flick (Jeremy Shinder) accepts a dare to lick the frost-coated school flagpole; the horror of the pink bunny-suit gift; the purloining of the turkey by the neighbor’s bloodhounds; and the consolation duck dinner at the local Chinese eatery. If you know the movie, none of these incidents requires explanation.

The show’s fidelity to its source means there’s almost as much anticipatory laughter as response from the audience. Just the sight of the padded snowsuit destined for Ralphie’s nutritionally challenged kid brother Randy (Zac Ballard) triggers guffaws.

But more than being a musicalized carbon copy of the movie, this is a gentle paean to a lost era, reflected in the bonds of a lower middle-class family with bills to pay and a tricky furnace in the basement. The principal conduit for that lovely throwback element is Ralphie’s mother. Dilly makes heartwarming work of a pair of tender ballads about family life and the indispensable maternal role in keeping everyone content. And without any obvious lecturing, the show provides the instant-gratification generation with an example of kids for whom the bounty of Christmas was truly a magical once-a-year occasion.

This is an ensemble show rather than a vehicle for star turns, but Lauria’s warmly authoritative presence provides a binding element, and Rabe gives Ralphie irrepressible spirit. Bolton deserves special mention, making Ralphie’s dad a gangly human cartoon, both gruff and affectionate.

With a few cozy key elements of kitchen, living room and upstairs bedroom, designer Walt Spangler conjures the Parkers’ home. And if the surrounding snowscape flats have the economical look of a touring production, they nonetheless coat the action in appropriate sugar frosting. Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s charming period costumes and Howell Binkley’s crisp lighting also ensure that Broadway holiday audiences are unlikely to feel shortchanged.

This is in many ways a modest, old-fashioned endeavor, but it compares favorably to most of its current or recent competition for the seasonal stage market. It’s less infantile than Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas; less artificially fabricated than Irving Berlin’s White Christmas; and less hampered by a personality-driven screen source than Elf, based on the Will Ferrell movie. It’s also less of a kitschy tourist magnet than the venerable Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Unexpectedly, the show pulses with genuine feeling, which should guarantee return engagements.

Venue: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York (runs through Dec. 30)

Cast: Dan Lauria, John Bolton, Erin Dilly, Johnny Rabe, Zac Ballard, Caroline O’Connor, Eddie Korbich, Tia Altinay, John Babbo, Charissa Bertels, Grace Capeless, Andrew Cristi, Thay Floyd, Nick Gaswirth, Mark Ledbetter, Jose Luaces, Jack Mastrianni, Lindsay O’Neil, Sarah Min-Kyung Park, J.D. Rodriguez, Analise Scarpaci, Lara Seibert, Jeremy Shinder, Luke Spring, Beatrice Tulchin, Kristin Wyatt

Director: John Rando

Book: Joseph Robinette, based on the movie written by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark, and “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” by Shepherd

Music and lyrics: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Set designer: Walt Spangler

Costume designer: Elizabeth Hope Clancy

Lighting designer: Howel Binkley

Sound designer: Ken Travis

Choreographer: Warren Carlyle

Music director and supervisor: Ian Eisendrath

Orchestrations: Larry Blank

Vocal arrangements: Justin Paul

Dance music arrangements: Glen Kelly

Presented by Gerald Goehrng, Roy Miller, Michael F. Mitri, Pat Flicker Addiss, Peter Billingsley, Timothy Laczynski, Mariano Tolentino Jr., Louise H. Beard, Michael Filerman, Scott Hart, Alison Eckert, Bob Bartner, Michael Jenkins, Angela Milonas, Bradford W. Smith