An ever-growing subgenre has emerged within the movie adaptation umbrella constantly covering Broadway: the holiday movie adaptation. In addition to Elf and White Christmas, both making return engagements this season, A Christmas Story, The Musical, the earnest adaptation of the cult film that grew into a yuletide tradition, has arrived for a limited engagement at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Joseph Robinette has drawn the show’s book from Leigh Brown, Bob Clark and Jean Shepherd’s script for the 1983 film, itself lifted from Shepherd’s anthology “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” and kept nearly all the film’s beloved vignettes intact (the only thing excised appears to be an Ovaltine-related sequence). He has also, with the sturdy help of director John Rando and music writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, maintained Shepherd’s sweet sense of nostalgia and innocence. It convincingly evokes a time when bullies still fought with their hands and the Red Ryder BB gun nine-year-old Ralphie (an able Johnny Rabe, alternating in the role with Joe West) could be seen only as a danger to himself (you hear the refrain “You’ll shoot your eye out” many a time) rather than a menace to society. It’s a time when the authority of teachers still went un-impugned by both students and their parents, and when love was enough to keep the home fires burning, even in a Depression-era Indiana small town.
That love is supplied in ample doses by Ralphie’s Mother (Erin Dilly, wonderful) and father, The Old Man, (John Bolton, humorously turning what was more of a curmudgeon in the film into a dexterously manic onstage creation), as well as by Ralphie’s button-cute kid brother, Randy (Zac Ballard). As played by a charming Dan Lauria – himself the paterfamilias of TV’s The Wonder Years, which knew a thing or two about narration and nostalgia – Shepherd narrates the events of the month leading up to Ralphie’s favorite holiday, Christmas, which include contending with the school bully, a visit to see a department store Santa Claus, the arrival of a curious novelty lamp, The Old Man’s colorful vernacular, his contention with a couple of neighborhood dogs, and the misguided dare of one of Ralphie’s friends to stick his tongue to a frozen pole, in addition to his quest to find that prized gun underneath the Christmas tree.
Robinette transfers all of these events from the movie, and the results fare better than most works that try to mimeograph the events of one genre onto enough (see: the musical version Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). The narrative flow is sometimes a bit forced but never clunky, and its episodic structure is fitting, given that it derives from the mind of a young child. It also gives Robinette and the team of Pasek and Paul the opportunity to expand Ralphie’s daydreams, Pennies From Heaven-style, into some elaborate and unexpected musical numbers. This includes a Western-themed “Ralphie to the Rescue” and “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.” The latter takes place, perhaps improbably, in a speakeasy (with the children in the cast dressed as adults and doing most of the dancing, “Bugsy Malone”-style), yet it shows off both Caroline O’Connor, as Ralphie’s teacher, Miss Shields, and wunderkind youngster Luke Spring in an exciting dance number. Throughout the show, choreographer Warren Carlyle devises thoughtful dance numbers that boasts the skills of his young cast without over-challenging them, and Rando makes the task of working with kid actors look like child’s play.
Pasek and Paul, who just recently proved in the Second Stage Theatre production of Dogfight a perceptive ability to thread music with narrative, setting and emotion, have crafted an enjoyable and appropriate pastiche score, although none really linger in the mind after the applause has wound down. Still, Dilly tackles her two numbers, “What a Mother Does” and the Big-recalling “Just Like That,” with such warmth and clarion delivery, one would be fool not to wish for everyone to have a mother like her. Bolton is a comic delight, mastering a plethora of physical demands in his role. Even Lauria goes the extra mile, fills his merely perfunctory role with real pathos. Christmas doesn’t aim to raise the bar, but it’s a charming callback to the comforts of both family and the traditional book musical.
A Christmas Story, The Musical
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