Everyone Gets A Present Courtesy of A CHRISTMAS STORY at Hippodrome
Posted on BroadwayWorld.com December 7, 2016
The key thing to know about A Christmas Story, The Musical, the national tour of which is now briefly commanding the boards at the Hippodrome, is that it will not offend any lover of the movie – a class comprised of pretty much the entire world. All the elements you want to see – the narration by Jean Shepherd, the Major Award, the flagpole (pictured above), the slugfest with Scut Farkas, the dogs in the kitchen, the Chinese dinner, and every repetition of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” are there, none the worse for your expecting them. The musicalization (book by Joseph Robinette, songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, choreography by Warren Carlyle) has not diminished any aspect of the movie; the new material does no damage to the original components.
What you get in addition is the kind of stuff that makes a musical a musical: songs, dances, production numbers. The starting point is our young hero Ralphie’s overactive imagination which, even in the movie, made exaggerated fantasies out of every unrealistic scenario he would conjure up in his single-minded quest for the Holy Grail Christmas present: the Red Ryder BB Gun. Since an exaggerated fantasy is just a production number waiting to happen anyway, you get a huge song-and-dance with the Major Award, duplicated many times over, kicking like a row of chorines. You get an extended Wild West number in which Ralphie, resplendent in white chaps and cowboy hat, envisions the outlaws and lowlifes he’ll straighten out when he gets his BB gun. You get a tap-dancing speakeasy number with his teacher Miss Shields in a flaming red dress slit thigh-high as Ralphie’s vision of how his teacher will love his school essay about the importance of being given a BB gun. And so on. It’s all harmless to the original conception, and much of it very good fun.
The leads are all splendid. The role of Ralphie is shared; on press night, it was Austin Molinaro, who brought the right sense of bespectacled imagination to the part. Mother (Susannah Jones) displays a pleasing warmth and wistfulness. The dad who can be a little thick and talk a little blue (if unintelligibly) as he tries to navigate the challenges of the late Depression is played with dogged doofusness by Christopher Swan. Angelica Richie is outstanding as Miss Shields, switching between the kind of propriety to which an excessive respect for margins on writing paper is second nature and the role of vamp in the aforementioned red dress. Chris Carsten does a fine job in channeling the relaxed and reminiscent Jean Shepherd.
And then there are the kids. The squadron of talented moppets is sort of a new thing. I’m not suggesting by any means that choruses of kids haven’t often been a feature of musicals; think back to The King and I and The Sound of Music. But that was all cute, designed to showcase the cuteness of kids as kids. The comic effect of kids doing adult-style dancing and singing is relatively recent. For that, I don’t think you can go back further than Bob Fosse‘s work in Annie. But there’s more of it now. Think School of Rock, where the kids not only play the instruments like rock stars, but scowl like arena rock heroes as they wield guitars conspicuously designed for larger hands and arms. Here the kids show off insanely good tap-dancing skills, and some impressive choral singing while wearing costumes (gangster suits and fedoras, for example) tailored as if for adults. Juveniles rule.
Being a piece designed for an obvious seasonal window only, A Christmas Story is a bit like the town of Brigadoon, coming to life only during that window. This is the third holiday season in which the musical has been on tour. That mayfly (all right, December fly) existence may be an asset. In a lyric from the show, “The moments come, the moments go, and just like that, the moment’s gone.” The verse is sung by Mother about the preciousness of holidays, but also about the preciousness of her boys’ fleeting childhoods, and that of the family’s moments together. Many of the best things gain their best quality from their transitory nature.
This show may also prove the point.
It must be acknowledged, on the way out, that there is perhaps a serious issue hidden by the tinsel. One could argue that the idealization of the white nuclear family in a Norman Rockwell-ish past in the American heartland privileges a sort of white innocence in a way not desirable in a multi-ethnic national present, characterized as well by many kinds of families. (To be sure, there are a sprinkling of non-white performers in this production, but that is either color-blind casting at work or revisionism, set next to the movie, which was definitely a white family’s story.) Such a criticism has in fact been leveled at a similar show, The Music Man, in Warren Hoffman’s recent book, The Great White Way. In my humble view, however, there’s room to celebrate everything and everybody, including white kids from intact nuclear families in 1940s Indiana. Unapologetically. It’s Christmas. Everyone gets a present.
Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo.