Just when I was beginning to fear I had become sarcastic and cynical, along came A Christmas Story to Broadway. Having seen the movie only once, more than ten years ago, I only had vague memories of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” repeated again and again. Little did I know upon entering the Lunt Fontanne Theater that a true holiday treat was waiting for me.
While I admit I am a sucker for holiday entertainment (I enjoyed both Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and Elf on Broadway in previous seasons,) A Christmas Story provided something neither of these other two shows did – just the right fusion of both sweet and sarcastic.
Based on the popular film from 1983, which was adapted from the writings of radio personality Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story is the tale of Ralphie, a young boy from Indiana who longs for a Red Ryder carbine action BB gun for Christmas and will do anything to receive the gift. The movie, which flows in episodic scenes of Ralphie’s escapades throughout the holiday season, was adapted skillfully to the stage, aided substantially by the affectionate narration of Dan Lauria.
Set in December of 1940, the last Christmas before America joined the war, A Christmas Story evokes wistful memories of A Simpler Time, which The Greatest Generation looks back upon with rose colored glasses. As Ralphie (played by Johnny Rabe, an earnest actor with a pure voice), his younger brother, Randy (an adorable Zac Ballard), his mother (Erin Dilly, in a sincerely sweet performance) and his father (a brilliantly comedic John Bolton) prepare for Christmas, the trials and tribulations of a 9 year old boy are performed and set to the comedic and heartfelt songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
While Pasek and Paul’s score is solidly entertaining in both its big company numbers, such as “It All Comes Down to Christmas,” or the more reflective, sweet ones, such as “Just Like That,” as Ralphie’s mother reflects on the fleeting moments of childhood, the fantasy songs, in which Ralphie and his father indulge in daydreams of their deepest desires, are the standouts. Briskly directed by John Rando and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, these unabashedly old-fashioned musical theater routines are both flashy and fantastic. “Ralphie to the Rescue,” in which Ralphie imagines himself saving his friends and family from disaster in old Western sets by using his BB gun, is nothing but delightful. And “A Major Award,” which follows Ralphie’s father, who is determined that completing crossword puzzle contests would bring him fame and fortune, winning the “major award” of a grotesquely tacky lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg, is outstanding. Bolton, maintaining the underdog, slightly nebbish character of The Old Man, leads a full-company, high kicking routine (complete with additional leg lamps also performing high kicks) in a show-stopping performance that left the audience gasping for laughter.
“You’ll shoot your eye out,” the trademark line of the movie, has its place in the musical adaptation, especially when Ralphie fantasizes himself in a speakeasy (spelled “speekeeze”), and his teacher (played by the triple threat comedian Caroline O’Connor) sings a jazzy, old-school number about how he will indeed shoot his eye out. She is joined by Luke Spring, an outstanding tap dancer who steals the show in his tiny tuxedo, delivering a surefire star-in-the-making performance. While one does wonder how a child would even know enough about a jazz-age speakeasy to have such a fantasy, the song and dance routine is excellent.
A Christmas Story is undoubtedly dated, especially in its treatment of Ralphie’s mother, who never seems to leave the kitchen (or not have on a pair of heels), but given its setting, her character is understandable. And it is clear she is the glue that holds the family together, whether indulging in her husband’s fantasies or soothing her sons after they fight with the town bully.
While it is clear most of the audience at A Christmas Story are fans of the movie and are eagerly expecting some of the lines, jokes and gags (especially the leg lamp), some of the show is truly new and fresh – especially the incredible talent of Bolton. One hopes we will see him back on Broadway after the holiday season has ended.