Tuesday, November 20, 2012

REVIEW: A Christmas Story: The Musical

Review of the Saturday, November 17 evening preview performance at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City, NY.  Starring John Bolton, Erin Dilly, Johnny Rabe, Zac Ballard, Caroline O'Connor and Dan Lauria. A new musical based upon the Warner Brothers/Turner Entertainment motion picture, "A Christmas Story" and "In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash" by Jean Shepherd.  Book by Joseph Robinette.  Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.  Choreography by Warren Carlyle.  Directed by John Rando.  2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission.


The upstairs lobby of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre has two merchandise stands, each with sellers decked out in pink bunny suits.  There are also two cutouts for photos - one with what appears to be a stuffed snow suit, and the other, a pink bunny suit.  Oh, yeah.  There's also sexy leg with a lampshade on it in a glass case.  All around me people are squealing with delight and laughing that kind of laugh one does when something reminds one of a fond memory.  And as we wait in line to make a purchase people are reading the t-shirts with gusto - complete strangers in a cult-like unison - "Fragile! Must be Italian!", followed by bellows of laughter.  I am not amused, but definitely confused... why is "Oh! Fu-u-u-u-u-dge!" funny?  Why are they selling bars of soap?  And why is the Easter Bunny in A Christmas Story: The Musical?

As you might have guessed, I have never seen more than a few minutes in a row of the beloved film classic, despite the fact that it is on for 24 hours straight every year.  And so, I went to the stage version with very few expectations; I was a blank slate.  And you know what?  I'm glad.  This nostalgic romp, rooted in reality, is full of fun surprises, hilarious fantasy sequences and sweet moments of innocence from a time that seems eons away from this fast-paced, plugged-in era of "me first, family second." Going into it with no prior knowledge allowed me to experience each delight like a series of unexpected Christmas gifts.  I'm told the movie and the script of the show are very close, so I won't bore you with too much of the plot if you know the film by heart, and I won't give it away if, like me, you are among the uninitiated.

Dan Lauria as Jean Shepherd

The Company in "Ralphie to the Rescue"

So how does it work as a musical?  Well, with Dan Lauria narrating and facilitating the fast-paced action, the story is neatly framed.  He exudes a warmth and childlike wonder that is infectious.  And it really helps that that same balance of nostalgia and fantasy, warmth and childlike wonder can be found in Joseph Robinette's book.  Though it apparently hews closely to the film's screenplay, he also provides very smooth transitions for the songs, which only once feels shoe-horned in. The score, by Dogfight's Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, marks their Broadway debut, and it is a pretty darned good debut.  If Dogfight showed that they can handle period pastiche and modern musical conventions, A Christmas Story shows they have the chops to create a smart, old fashioned crowd-pleaser.  Here, they give us that endangered species, an overture(!), meaningful ballads ("What a Mother Does"), and clever production numbers that range from Western shoot'm ups ("Ralphie to the Rescue"), to tap numbers with a jazzy nod to the Roaring 20's ("You'll Shoot Your Eye Out") to a very funny-because-it's-true opening number about the rush to create the perfect holiday ("It All Comes Down to Christmas").  Best of all, the songs sound like they belong in the same show, yet they all have a unique sound.

Design-wise, the show is quaint and serviceable, if slightly ill-fitting at the cavernous Lunt-Fontanne.  The main house set (set design by Walt Spangler) is pretty cool, with lots of detail and holiday flair.  The rest of the set pieces help tell the story, but all of it has the look and feel of the National Tour it once served.  Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costumes smartly evoke the era and (I'm told) mimic the look of the beloved film.  Howell Binkley's lights always create the right mood, and Ken Travis's sound design manages to work nicely in the cave of a theatre it is in.  All of that said, all of the design elements probably look just fine from most of the seats, but I was pretty close to the front.

"I'm Stuck!" : Jeremy Schinder, center
The Kids of A Christmas Story: The Musical

Director John Rando keeps things moving with a 21st Century urgency, but always with an eye toward 1940's convention.  Similarly, Warren Carlyle's slick dances add to the story while creating individual memories for the audience, particularly his use of a troupe of truly exceptional small children.  They have to be seen to believed; rarely have I seen such a group of kids in a play that were so exceedingly professional, Broadway caliber triple threats without a shred of overconfidence or sickly sweetness.  Standouts among the standouts include Grace Capeless, J.D. Rodriguez, Luke Spring, and, as the kid who gets his tongue stuck to the frozen flag pole, Jeremy Schinder practically steals the show.

"A Major Award": The Parker Family

The show centers around the mid-western Parkers, who appear to be the perfect Norman Rockwell family.  Of course, the delight of the piece comes from the fact that most of us like to think we are the all-American family to others, but inside that perfect suburban home we/they are anything but.  And what makes the whole situation so hilarious is that it is told through the filter of childhood memory:  a world where a brother who won't eat is a major plot point, where every trip to school is a danger-ridden adventure, and where your whole life can be about how to get a BB gun for Christmas.  It is a world where memories are exaggerated and you call your father "The Old Man" and his wife is simply, "Mother."  While devotees of the film may be attached to that cast, I have to say that on Broadway, at least, they have struck gold with the Parkers, all of whom manage to walk that fine line between exaggeration and reality with comic finesse and a genuine affection for one another.

The women in Ralphie's life: Mother (Erin Dilly) and Miss Shields (Caroline O'Connor)

Erin Dilly is wonderful as the much suffering but ultimately heroic Mother, with a sweet voice, a firm, but loving manner, and even a surprising flaw or two.  As directed, she is in constant motion as all mothers are, moving from the kitchen to getting ready for school with the precision of a surgeon.  Dilly handles this well, never being so fussy with it all that it detracts, and she shows some deft physical comedy skills - the scene where she dresses her youngest son to go out in the snow had the audience screaming with laughter.  Young Zac Ballard, like all of the kids in this show, is charming and, most importantly, real as the littlest Parker, Randy.  He is particularly cute in all the right ways as Mother coaxes him through another meal and when he topples over in the snow but can't get up.  The second most important woman in a boy's life - his elementary school teacher - is played with a coy sexiness and firm hand by Caroline O'Connor.  She's quite funny and is a terrific dancer, even if she is stuck in the most under-written role in the show. (Her big number, "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" is really great and earns the rapturous applause it gets, but it is the only number that really feels like it was stuck in to give her something more to do.)

Father and Son: The Old Man (John Bolton) and Ralphie (Johnny Rabe)

But it is the two eldest Parker men that own this show.  The Old Man, played with an impossibly rubbery angst by John Bolton, is a riot as the man to be feared.  But his larger than life quirks are what the boy remembers, and it is a joy to see how that fear turns into respect and into loving admiration.  How else do you explain a man obsessed with winning "A Major Award" in every contest he enters; and when he does - an ugly leg lamp, no less - it turns into a major production number, complete with a (you had to see it coming) kick line of leg lamp wielding chorus boys and girls!  Only a little boy would remember his father fixing the furnace and car like he was a knight battling a dragon.  And only a little boy would remember the pain of disappointing Mother and the Old Man.  That little boy, the hero of our story, the much maligned but always thinking Ralphie Parker, is winningly played by Johnny Rabe.  This little guy is so natural, so real, you are on his side from the second you see him.  Maybe he evokes memories for us, maybe he makes wish we were that kid.  But no matter, this boy, dare I say it, is destined to become the star that a certain Andrea McArdle became after winning the hearts of Broadway fans the world over.  And he does it the old fashioned way - a genuine triple threat: singer, dancer, actor - all of it without being a cloying obnoxious stage child who mugs his way through the tougher scenes. No, Mr. Rabe has it all and then some.  What will he do next?  Who knows?  But I know if I see his name attached to a project, I will be there to see what he does!

John Bolton and Company

Ultimately, this Christmas story is probably most magical the first time you see it, like I just did.  It is that rare show that I really loved seeing, but don't want or need to see again.  The delight of the show, for me, was discovering each little quirk and universal truth as they happened.  The next time I see a pink bunny suit, I'll laugh with appreciation, and the next time I drop something and scream an obscenity, I'll think "Oh! Fu-u-u-u-u-u-dge!" And the next time I see my dad puttering around his house while my mother complains that she hasn't had a hot meal in years, I'll think of the Parkers.  A Christmas Story, for me, will evoke those memories.  But I'm pretty sure I won't want to spoil the fond memories I now have of the show by seeing it all again.

(Photos by Carol Rosegg)


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