‘A Christmas Story: The Musical!’ is ‘a major award’ for the holidays


John Bolton and the company of “A Christmas Story: The Musical!” Photo by Carol Rosegg

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 >

House Theatre’s ‘The Nutcracker’ cracks a classic tale wide open


The cast from the 2010 production of The House Theatre of Chicago’s “The Nutcracker”

About 10 minutes into The House Theatre of Chicago’s surprising production of The Nutcracker, things take an unexpected (and very much welcomed) turn. The show opens with jovial charm and spirited energy, accompanied by singing, dancing and general merriment. Always a perpetual Scrooge, it was a bit overwhelming for me, and I thought, “Hell, if the entire evening’s gonna be *this*, I’m SOL.”

But then, this family, who’s celebrating the return of their beloved Fritz, gets some sobering news. The festivities grind to a breathtaking halt. The family grieves, and the holidays are put on hold. A year passes and the family remains inert. Uncle Drosselmeyer (David Catlin) arrives, unannounced, to force his sister, brother-in-law and young niece Clara (a rambunctious Briana DiGiulio) to reopen the wound and heal properly so Christmas can continue. And he uses the young Clara’s vivid imagination as his plan’s vessel.

In this brave adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story by House Theatre company members Phillip C. Klapperich and Jake Minton, real human emotion and an uncompromising examination of the grieving process take center stage. Clara’s magical thinking comes into question: do her escapes into fantasy land with her toys — including a soldier nutcracker that she believes embodies her dead brother — help or harm? Is pretending her dead brother’s alive in doll form any healthier than her parents’ coping mechanism, which is to simply ignore it?

Heady stuff. And just when you think things can’t get any more intense, Clara dives into the darkness to face The Rat King — actually a metaphor for facing one’s inner fears, but literally depicted on House’s stage via amazing special effects and puppetry (designed by Allison Daniel).

But, don’t worry: the ending is hopeful and quite happy.

Will kids like it? Based on the reactions of the two toddlers sitting in front of me, they’ll certainly have many questions. If you haven’t talked with your kids about the concepts of death and grieving, they might be confused. But there’s also dancing and laughter and music and lots of fake snow for them to play in at intermission, so that may be enough to capture their imaginations through the more somber (read: squirmy) moments.

Did I like it? House’s production has received rave reviews and a strong following since its debut in 2007. This remount, directed and choreographed by Tommy Rapley, was my first exposure, and I’m not entirely sure it lived up to the hype for me. While I greatly admired the effort, the thing feels excessively frantic and everyone YELLS THEIR LINES, so it’s a bit headache inducing. Also, the use of live music (accompanied by a small but full-sounding band) is a lovely idea, but the meandering tunes and pedestrian lyrics (both by Kevin O’Donnell) don’t match the creative level set by the rest of the production.

That said, the imagination and energy on the stage is outstanding, and the audience seemed captivated. I’d recommend it as a charmingly complex alternative to the sugary sweetness most theatre is steeped in this time of year.

“The Nutcracker” plays through December 30 at The Chopin Theatre. More information here >

‘A Klingon Christmas Carol’ isn’t just for Trekkies (but it helps)

While in Pilson attending the first annual Chicago fringe festival earlier this year, someone handed me a show flier for something called A Klingon Christmas Carol. On the back, it had this description:

“Can three ghosts help him to become the true warrior he ought to be in time to save Tiny Tim from a horrible fate? Performed in the original Klingon with English supertitles, and narrative analysis from The Vulcan Institute of Cultural Anthropology.”

As I’m far from a Trekkie, I shook my head and posted a photo of this flier on Facebook for laughs. To my surprise, an outpouring of interest came through, urging me to “see it — and take me, please!”

So, I did. And my friend Sarah joined me, who attended more out of mild amusement than anything.

The verdict? Enjoyable! While several bits of Klingon in-jokes and Star Trek humor buzzed right over my head, I found myself laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. It’s like Klingon Kabuki theatre. Foreign, yet fascinating.

Me, a Klingon Tiny Tim, and his handler (Alison Faraj). Don't mind SQuja' (Kevin Alves) photobombing me. Also, don't mind my HUGE forehead vein, which I think makes me an honorary Klingon.

Having seen The Goodman’s very traditional interpretation of the Charles Dickens morality tale the day before, the scenes and dialogue were still fresh in my mind. For the most part, the plot follows the basic premise, with some key changes to accommodate Klingon culture. Most notably, Scrooge (here, SQuja’ — pronounced Sk-OOO-JA!) is suffering from a lack of courage and honor, rather than compassion and humanity. He’d rather hide out in his hole, grumpily counting his gold, than fight in battle. The three warrior ghosts show how his pansiness has plagued his life. And poor Tiny Tim (tlmHom, played by a creepy/awesome puppet — see photo to the left) is doomed unless SQuja’ grows a pair.

My favorite adaptation of the material was the scene were the young SQuja’ meets his love, bel (Belle). In the Goodman production, they met through a lighthearted dance scene at a holiday party hosted by Mr. Fezziwig, where Scrooge leads Belle to believe he’s a jubilant fellow through his jubilant footwork. Here, they meet in a Klingon rumble, where SQuja’ leads bel to believe he’s a fearless warrior by accidentally punching her in the face.

I have to applaud Commedia Beauregard for their commitment to developing this work — the first play ever produced and performed entirely in Klingon. Each actor demonstrated unflagging commitment to the material (particularly Kevin Alves as the lead cranky Klingon), delivering the guttural language spit-tacularly. English supertitles (which at times seemed out of sync with the action below) help Klingon newbies follow along. And at just under two hours, the show doesn’t overstay its welcome (I was fearing something epic).

A few grumbles: The fight scenes border on lame (which is a rather significant problem when we’re told over and over that amazing warrior-ship is critical to Klingon culture), and the set (a drop-cloth and some chairs) is disappointingly stark. Costumes (Jeff Stolz) and makeup/prosthetics (Bill Hedrick) are fierce, however. Let’s hope this show, which has been a holiday cult hit in the Twin Cities for the past few years, finds its footing in Chicago.

“A Klingon Christmas Carol” plays through Dec. 19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center. More info here >

Of Christmases long, long ago

It might have snowed (snown?) so much this week that I had to get on the roof and shovel it off this morning. And I might have almost gotten clobbered in the head with a block of falling ice as large as a microwave. And I might have gotten trapped in a parking lot because I couldn’t find the exit due to the 20 foot (literally) snow piles blocking me in. But that’s northern Michigan for you!

A few photos I pulled out of the dusty album today:

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LOVE the Cookie Monster slippers. And the plastic tree.

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My sister and I with our snowdisc. Note my Alpena hockey badge on my coat.

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Clearly, not Christmas. But I like this picture. I think I was pouting/crying on the swing in our back yard, and my mom thought “PHOTO OP!” Aw, mom. Catering to my budding dramatic tendencies.

Oh Tannenbaum, Oh Tannenbaum

Wie treu sind deine Blätter…

We spent the weekend in the Loop. Pretty Christmas trees everywhere.

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In comparison, our tree looks positively Charlie Brown-esque.

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