Nov. 15--The show: "A Christmas Story: The Musical" at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford.
What makes it special?: Musical adaptation of classic 1983 holiday film.
First impressions: All the iconic scenes are there: a kid's tongue sticking to the frozen flagpole, the father's obsession with a leg lamp, the visit to the snarky Santa, even the hounds from next door, but what makes this modest, easy-going, efficient musical -- that's perhaps a little too faithful to the movie -- so satisfying is its heart, even in the midst of all the sublime silliness that made the film so special.
But the film was just this rambling story of anecdotes: That works in the show's favor. It doesn't try too hard, well, almost, and that's its charm. The narrative propulsion of this '40s Indiana-set story is simply whether Ralphie is going to get a BB gun for Christmas.
But musicalizing the show?: For the most part it works, and even enhances the material. The opening number, "It All Comes Down to Christmas," sets out the stakes in a catchy way. The fantasy numbers from the film also nicely take to musicalizing -- although I fail to make any sense of the "Bugsy Malone"-style speakeasy number, "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out," other than to unleash the tasty ham of Caroline O'Connor as Ralphie's teacher Miss Shields and a dazzling tap solo by the Luke Spring.
The father's big number, "A Major Award," also doesn't quite land as well as it should (the endless repeating of the title is weak and annoying). But "Ralphie to the Rescue" is great fun, as are the two other musical set pieces centering on the flagpole and Santa scenes.
But what really grounds the story from all the flights of the imagination are a pair of lovely songs by the talented composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, beautifully sung by Erin Dilly as the off-beat but loving mother: 'What a Mother Does" and "Just Like That."
But the father's crossword puzzle number is flat and should have been rewritten from last year's Broadway bow to this year's return. John Bolton looks like he's having a ball as the loopy, limber-limbed father -- though at times he looks as if he may be going too far off the charts. But he brings it home for the closing scenes that generate real emotion that sneaks up on you when you least expect it
In a bit of synchronistic casting Dan Lauria (the father in TV's "The Wonder Years") as the show's narrator Jean Shepherd, is as casual and comfortable as a favorite slipper, bringing spark and heart to the storytelling.
And the rest of the kids?: All terrific. Michael Crispi as Flick, the boy with the sticky tongue, has great presence and voice. (You could imagine him starring as Nicely Nicely in "Guys and Doll" in 25 years.) Noah Baird as younger brother Randy also has some funny moments whether packed into that Michelin-style snowsuit or hiding under the sink.
As Ralphie, Jake Lucas proves you don't have to be the mirror image of Peter Billingsley in the film to succeed in the role. Lucas has a strong voice, total command of the stage but needs a bit more conspiratorial twinkle for the puckish role to really meet its potential.
But Tuesday night was just opening night for a week's run here before the show goes to Boston and then returns to Broadway so there's time for director John Rando to add more polish and snap.
Favorite part?: Releasing the hounds. Connecticut's animal trainer William Berloni found some great scene-stealing dogs in a great and literal running gag.
Who will like it?: Kids. Parents, too. Fans of the film and Jean Shepherd. Leg fetishists.
Who won't?: Grinches. Department store Santas. Bullies.
For the kids?: Absolutely.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: I triple dog dare you not to at least like this show a little, maybe a lot.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: The show's creators nail the lasting power of this slight but compelling story in the mother's song about appreciating the little moments of family that just happen during the dailiness of life: a younger brother's kooky eating habits, a brother forgetting himself and letting loose an expletive, a mother covering up for a wounded child, a father unexpectedly coming through for his son. Like Thornton Wilder in "Our Town," it's about the humor and humanity of those moments -- sometimes silly, sometimes profound -- that make the film, and often in this musical, so damn touching.
The basics: A Christmas Story plays the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford through Sunday, Nov. 17. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. Performances are Wednesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.50 to $95.50, not including fees. Information: 860-987-5900 and http://www.bushnell.org.
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