A Christmas Story, the beloved holiday movie that plays an annual Christmas marathon on TV, has gone the path of inevitability and become a big, glitzy Broadway musical. Like Elf and Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas before it, the story of little Ralphie and his dedicated quest to have Santa Claus bring him a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun has been given the “treatment,” and the critic in me felt ready to pounce.
What a refreshing surprise it is to report that A Christmas Story is an ably acted, well-written musical that stands as one of the few highlights of the current Broadway season. The two-hour show provides plenty of holiday entertainment to New Yorkers and tourists alike, and it doesn’t feel like highway robbery to pay Broadway prices for jokes we could just watch on TBS.
The main reason why the musical works so well is because it feels both beholden to its source material and able to stake its own claim. The story of Ralphie’s holiday mishaps was the brainchild of radio personality Jean Shepherd (brought to life in the musical by the great Dan Lauria). The enjoyment of the story has mostly to do with its Norman Rockwell-like Americana, featuring good families trying to make their way through the Christmas season hubbub. Scenes of buying evergreen trees, licking cold flagpoles, visiting Santa Claus in a department store and winning a “major award” take a nostalgic bent when viewed through Ralphie’s bespectacled eyes. We’re vicariously living through America’s so-called golden era, when the neighbor’s dogs and the smoky furnace in the basement were the only real problems in life.
The musical, featuring a book by Joseph Robinette and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, finds most of its spunk in large musical numbers that find the central family daydreaming about something or some place better. “A Major Award” finds the Old Man (John Bolton, offering a satisfying performance) and a chorus of dancers made to look like leg lamps. “Ralphie to the Rescue!” breaks from the children’s classroom and finds our main character saving friends and family from the evils of the world, much like the cowboys in an old Western. The same goes with “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” a well-placed Act II tune.
For fans of the movie, all of the funny one-liners are there. The Bumpus Hounds are even portrayed by real dogs, named Pete and Lily. The musical doesn’t take the place of the movie (it never could); instead, the Broadway version simply validates our fascination with the story.
Bolton and Lauria are the best in the cast, although Johnny Rabe does a solid job as Ralphie (the young actor alternates with Joe West). Caroline O’Connor is quite funny as Ralphie’s teacher, Miss Shields. The only character that feels underwritten and refuses to shine is Erin Dilly’s Mother role. Her solo numbers, including “What a Mother Does,” never click with the rest of the evening.
A Christmas Story, directed with appropriate freneticism by Tony winner John Rando, is not the best Broadway show of the season. But as far as holiday fare goes, it’s quality entertainment. It’s okay to fork over the money for something we can recite by heart. This one is a yuletide blast.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
A Christmas Story, the Musical
Book by Joseph Robinette
Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Directed by John Rando
Starring Dan Lauria, John Bolton, Johnny Rabe, Zac Ballard, Caroline O’Connor and Erin Dilly
Running time: 130 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Currently playing the Lunt Fontanne Theatre at 205 W. 46th St. in New York City. Click here for more information.