News Column

Musical 'Christmas Story' merry and bright

November 23, 2013


Nov. 23--BOSTON -- Fans of the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story" needn't worry that the classic holiday tale has been musicalized: In an all-too-rare feat when adapting from screen to stage -- especially for Christmas fare -- they got this one right.

This warm and funny 2010 musical version was a Broadway hit last year and is stopping here with the same four adult leads as in New York, including TV/stage/film star Dan Lauria narrating as storyteller Jean Shepherd and a group of kids that wow. Joseph Robinette's book retains the overall story as well as wonderful details of this nostalgic, semi-autographical look a 1940 childhood December in Indiana.

The centerpiece is young, bespectacled Ralphie's unflagging campaign to get a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB gun for Christmas despite adults' dismissive warnings that "you'll shoot your eye out." Jake Lucas is an utterly lovable and sympathetic Ralphie with a clear, strong singing voice and flair for understated comedy that help his big "Ralphie to the Rescue" number shine. The story includes the triple-dog-dare for a friend to put his tongue on an ice-cold metal pole; a run-in with a surly department-store Santa; Ralphie's Old Man (John Bolton) winning a precious lamp shaped like a stockinged leg in a mail-in contest; a running gag of dogs (real dogs) chasing the Old Man; Ralphie receiving footed bunny pajamas from a clueless aunt; Ralphie's brother Randy (adorable second-grader Noah Baird) getting immobilized in a snowsuit; and more.

The vignettes are crucially enhanced by Walt Spangler's set and his attention to detail, with a two-story house (wheeled on and off in two pieces) that gets more Christmas lights as December wears on. Around the sides and top of the stage are layers of white, swirly arches studded with crystalline chunks that, along with an almost constant soft snowfall at the rear of the stage, envelope the house in the illusion of all that snow some of us remember having in our childhoods.

Perhaps even more important, though, is that Robinette's script and John Rando's direction nail the movie's tone, too -- and that's only enhanced by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's lighthearted, and often lovely, score. There is gentle, sometimes dry, humor in the everyday foibles and quirks of a family and often hapless kid in a simpler time, without the treacly veneer (hello, Lifetime Channel), snarky jokes, or go-too-far antics that can sink a Christmas story. Rando also adds a lot of fun stage business, much -- like a tiny kid dragging the vanquished bully offstage -- dependent on the young cast members. They not only ace the song-and-dance numbers, but add a heart to this story that will draw in both watching children and adults.

Compared to the movie, the musical beefs up Mother's role, particularly with reflective songs about treasuring family life. But Erin Dilly is so appealing in this tender, yet no-nonsense part that unless you're a hard-core purist of this film, her sentimental additions will win you over.

Although he occasionally rushed his lines at Thursday's opening, Lauria, too, is a genial and softly comic presence as Shepherd leads us through the memories. Bolton uses facial expressions, vocal inflections and gangly physical antics to hilarious effect as the often grouchy, profanity-spewing, furnace-battling Old Man, who's just looking for a little respect.

One of the best musical moments is his "A Major Award," which imaginative choreographer Warren Carlyle turns into a splashy group dance number with multiple leg lamps that builds gleefully to a " well, just think of the Rockettes. And while this musical does drag out a bit getting to Christmas in the second act, which musical interlude should be cut? A speakeasy-themed "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" song led by teacher Miss Shields (Caroline O'Connor), for example, is definitely superfluous, but it becomes a terrific, high-energy tap highlight with a small surprise.

There's so much to enjoy in this show, in fact, that it's hard to imagine anyone leaving without a smile and, yes, a Christmas-y sort of feeling. The spate of holiday classics adapted into stage musicals has definitely been uneven in recent years, but "A Christmas Story" is one of the winners.


(c)2013 the Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, Mass.)

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