What is it about the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story, that captures our hearts? I know whenever I turn on TBS and see it playing, I can only help but nostalgically linger on the channel and watch some of my favorite scenes play out: “Who’s mommy’s little piggie?” “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” “Fra-gee-lay!” “A plus, plus, plus, plus!” “Ohhhh fffffuuuudddggge…”
In fact, my father loves the movie so much, we actually bought him a scaled down replica of the infamous leg lamp several years ago, which he proudly displays in our bay window each Christmas.
And at last night’s press opening of A Christmas Story: The Musical!, it’s clear that this movie has a following. The packed Chicago Theatre — a cave of a venue that’s hardly the ideal spot for a charming musical such as this — was buzzing with anticipation as we waited to see how our favorite holiday film would be translated to the stage.
As a self-professed musical theatre snob, I have to say, the creators have done a fine job. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics, respectively) have penned a tuneful, smart score that echoes shades of William Finn. But most importantly, the music adds something to the story — they find clever and unexpected moments for songs to not only fit, but to elevate the action. For example, when Mr. Parker (aka “the old man,” played by the inexhaustible John Bolton) gets his coveted leg lamp, he launches into a full-out showstopper, “Major Award,” complete with leg lamp kick line. And with 16 players in the pit playing Larry Blank’s orchestrations, the score simply sparkles.
There are also a few tender scenes, mostly delivered by Rachel Bay Jones as Mrs. Parker as she sings about the small miracles of motherhood. Unfortunately, these quiet, rare moments nearly get gobbled up in the ginormous and echo-y Chicago Theatre.
Book writer Joseph Robinette has the most difficult task of adapting the movie for the stage, and for the most part, he succeeds. Robinette gives the show some movement by making the wry narrator — the grown up Ralphie — an actual character in the show (played by beloved Chicago actor Gene Weygandt) who relays his story to us from the side of the stage, and also gets into the mix by playing minor roles such as the delivery man for the leg lamp. Clever. I do think the show, running around 2.5 hours long, could use some trimming — the second act tends to drag.
But what good is A Christmas Story if we don’t feel connected to the main crisis of the story — Ralphie’s monomaniacal desire for an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle! And, in the lead role, Clarke Hallum, a fine young actor with an exceptionally clear and strong singing voice, gets us rooting for Ralphie.
And in a showy featured role, Broadway veteran Karen Mason gets the opportunity to belt her face off as Ralphie’s teacher as she warns him, in song, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
Production values are fine, even if it seems like the show is trying too hard to fill the vast Chicago Theatre stage. I can’t wait for this musical to make its way to Chicago’s regional theatres in the coming years — Marriott Theatre’s in-the-round space would be an ideal fit.
“A Christmas Story: The Musical” plays through December 30 at the Chicago Theater. More info here >