BWW REVIEW: A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL Is a Quirky Family Delight

Book by Joseph Robinette; music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; based upon the motion picture "A Christmas Story" and "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" by Jean Shepherd; set design, Walt Spangler; costume design, Elizabeth Hope Clancy; lighting design, Howell Binkley; sound design, Ken Travis; hair and wig design, Tom Watson; animals trained by William Berloni; music director and conductor, Ben Whiteley; production stage manager, Peter Wolf; orchestrations, Larry Blank; choreographed by Warren Carlyle; directed by John Rando

Cast in Order of Appearance:
Jean Shepherd, Dan Lauria; Ralphie, Jake Lucas (at certain performances, Eli Tokash); Mother, Erin Dilly; Randy, Noah Baird; The Old Man, John Bolton; The Bumpus Hounds, Pete and Lily; Schwartz, Nicky Torchia; Flick, Michael Crispi; Esther Jane, Beada Briglia; Mary Beth, Alexa Niziak; Scut Farkus, Mitchell Sink; Grover Dill, Charlie Babbo; Miss Shields, Caroline O'Connor; Mobster Tap Specialty, Luke Spring; Santa Claus, David Scott Purdy; Waiter, Charlie Babbo; Waitress, Hannah Isabel Bautista; Neighbors, Shoppers, Parents, Students, Townspeople, Elves and Others, Charlie Babbo, Hannah Isabel Bautista, Charissa Bertels, Tanya Birl, Beada Briglia, Judae'a Brown, Michael Crispi, Andrew Cristi, Thay Floyd, Nick Gaswirth, Lizzie Klemperer, Jose Luaces, Alex Niziak, Lindsay O'Neil, David Scott Purdy, Keven Quillon, Mitchell Sink, Luke Spring, Jenny Lee Stern, and Nicky Torchia

Performances and Tickets:
Now through December 8, Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass.; tickets are $45-$125, available online at www.citicenter.org or by calling 866-348-9738.

Move over, Clara, Amahl and Tiny Tim. There's a new kid in town this holiday season, and his name is Ralphie Parker. A rootin' tootin' singin' and dancin' bespectacled little buckaroo, Ralphie is an endearing young boy whose ardent Christmas quest for nothing more than a "Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time" invests A CHRISTMAS STORY, the delightful Joseph Robinette, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul adaptation of Jean Shepherd's beloved cockeyed classic, with the most humor, wit and heart of any new Broadway musical this side of the Pecos.

Nominated for three Tony Awards and six Drama Desk Awards, including Best Book, Best Score, and Best Musical, A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL is sheer, unadulterated, toe-tapping fun, celebrating while simultaneously spoofing American family Christmases of the past. Featuring original Broadway cast members John Bolton as The Old Man, Erin Dilly as Mother, Caroline O'Connor as the elementary school teacher Miss Shields, and Dan Lauria as the narrator Jean Shepherd, A CHRISTMAS STORY is an eccentric, irreverent, affectionate, and grandly entertaining remembrance of a time when cynicism didn't damper the magic of the season and a young child's innocent dreams were stronger than any threat, real or imagined.

The musical is a flashback of sorts as radio humorist Jean Shepherd (a thoroughly winning Dan Lauria) returns to his own quirky childhood in Indiana circa 1940s to reveal a series of improbable and increasingly more amusing events that led to one memorable Christmas in particular. Guiding, shadowing, instigating, and even interacting with his childhood self manifested as the high-spirited young Ralphie (Jake Lucas at the press performance), Shepherd reminisces but also realizes that for all their faults his family's unusual experiences were rooted in love.

A CHRISTMAS STORY is propelled by a host of wacky but universally recognizable circumstances that, for fans of the 1983 movie, have become iconic symbols of a simpler age. Each episode presents itself as yet another obstacle in Ralphie's path to attaining his brass ring.

There's the soot-belching furnace that sends The Old Man into a tirade of unutterable profanity. There's Ralphie's wild fight with the schoolyard bully and the dreaded triple dog dare that freezes a classmate's tongue to the flagpole. There's the department store Santa who hates little children, and little brother Randy's giant snow suit, a massive straight jacket-like affair that seems to have a mind of its own. There's also the ridiculously tacky Leg Lamp that The Old Man prizes almost as much as his own family. Finally, there's the sing-song-y admonition that every adult on the planet wags endlessly at Ralphie: "You'll shoot your eye out." What is a young boy to do?

With big ambition and an even bigger imagination, Ralphie embarks on a course of fantastic day-dreaming and story-telling to convince his parents, teacher, and the Big Man himself that the world would be a better place if only he had a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun to save the day. Ralphie's fantasies burst into dazzling song and dance extravaganzas, with the newly transformed "Cowboy Ralphie" thwarting bank robbers and saving damsels in distress. Through these hilarious but also heartfelt flights of fancy we realize that Ralphie's dream isn't about the BB gun. It's about becoming a "somebody" his family and friends can admire and respect. It's about being a winner, about achieving self-esteem. For a "four-eyed" and "wimpy" young schoolboy whose family is perhaps a few cards short of a full deck, being a hero is everything.

In this regard A CHRISTMAS STORY's creative team of Robinette, Pasek, and Paul has actually improved upon the movie version. Through touching additions to the book and terrifically inventive songs they have been able to draw a wonderful parallel between Ralphie's aspirations and those of his father. As the younger Parker dreams of saving his friends, family, teacher and townsfolk in "Ralphie to the Rescue," The Old Man revels in being "The Genius on Cleveland Street" for having won a "major prize" in a mail-in newspaper contest. When that prize turns out to be the aforementioned Leg Lamp, The Old Man cherishes it every bit as much as Ralphie would his longed for Red Ryder.

As Ralphie, Jake Lucas (alternating with Eli Tokash) is just right: wide-eyed, a little geeky, conniving but also wary of his father's wrath should he go too far in his pursuit of his Holy Grail. With his mother (a warm, wise and whimsical Erin Dilly) and younger brother Randy (a remarkably deadpan Noah Baird) he can be frustrated but also vulnerable and tender. When he's leading the ensemble in his many big production numbers, he's a natural born song and dance man. His enthusiasm is contagious, and his joy lights up the stage.

As the harried head of the household known simply as The Old Man, John Bolton is a marvelous bundle of comic contradictions. He's gruff and curmudgeonly when reeling off a string of merrily muffled expletives, but he's also guileless when brandishing the strange trophy that is a source of great pride for him but great embarrassment for his wife and children.

Erin Dilly shines as the loyal wife and mother whose own dreams are subsumed by her family's wants and needs. In "What a Mother Does" and "Just Like That," she uses her light and lovely soprano to smooth a father's ruffled feathers and soothe away youthful fears. She also exudes an easy daffiness that is her own shrewd defense against the craziness that is perpetually unleashed by her volatile husband and off-center children.

Triple threat Caroline O'Connor sizzles as the affable schoolteacher Miss Shields. Lovelorn and a little child weary, she is nonetheless dedicated and adored. In the rollicking 1930s Speakeasy fantasy sequence that springs from Ralphie's overactive imagination, O'Connor becomes the sexy nightclub singer who leads the children's ensemble in the delightful "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out." Complete with jazz licks, a glitter ball, mobster suits and spats, the number reaches a glorious crescendo when the remarkable young dynamo Luke Spring joins O'Connor for a virtuosic tap dance that stops the show.

Every production number in A CHRISTMAS STORY, in fact, is pure delight. "Ralphie to the Rescue" is a rough-riding rodeo romp through the Wild West. "A Major Award," inspired by that cheesy Leg Lamp, features what may very well be the funniest kick line ever to grace a Broadway musical. "Up on Santa's Lap" is a high-speed department store chase between Santa's overworked Elves and the long line of children still waiting to see him before the store closes for Christmas Eve.

From the beginning of Ralphie's frantic Christmas countdown to the family's unplanned Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant, A CHRISTMAS STORY is pitch-perfect in every way. Director John Rando and choreographer Warren Carlyle have captured the madcap wit and peculiar charms of Shepherd's bygone world and infused Robinette, Pasek and Paul's off-beat adaptation with hilarity and heart.

The design team has also created a magnificent physical world that is both timeless and time-specific. Jagged cut-out arches of ice and snow create a shimmering snow globe effect that invites the audience to peer nostalgically into the past. At the center of the globe is the modest Parker home, a ginger bread-like cottage that provides cozy comfort against the surrounding chill. At times the home gives way to Miss Shields' classroom with large rear windows overlooking the frozen schoolyard. At other times the huge storefront window of Higbee's is flown in, framing the crowd of eager last-minute shoppers as if they were posing for a family portrait. A bright red velvet curtain is used to create an array of fanciful dream sequence effects, and vibrant colored lighting projected onto the back scrim suggests the ice-blue cold of winter, the heat of a 1930s Speakeasy, and the magic and wonder of a starry Christmas Eve sky.

A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL is in Boston at the Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre through December 8 only. The company then moves to New York City for a return engagement at Madison Square Garden December 11-29.

If you're a fan of Jean Shepherd, and especially the 1983 movie based on his short stories, you'll revel in the care and affection with which A CHRISTMAS STORY has been adapted for the musical stage. If you're new to the wild and wacky world of Ralphie and the Parkers, you may be surprised at just how funny and charming this holiday family classic can be.

PHOTOS BY Carol Rosegg: Jake Lucas as Ralphie Parker; Dan Lauria as Jean Shepherd; David Scott Purdy as the Prisoner, Naoh Baird as Randy, and Jake Lucas; John Bolton as The Old Man and company; Noah Baird, Erin Dilly as Mother, John Bolton and Jake Lucas; Luke Spring as Mobster Tap Specialty and Caroline O'Connor as Miss Shields; the company of A Christmas Story, The Musical




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Jan Nargi Jan Nargi is owner and creative director of JMN Publications, a marketing and public relations firm based in Boston, Mass. She provides consultation, communications, and writing services to clients in the health care, entertainment, financial, retail, manufacturing, non-profit, and sports industries. As a freelance writer, Jan has had hundreds of articles published in business and high-tech magazines. Theatrically, she has reviewed, written, directed, acted, produced, sung, danced, managed publicity, pounded nails, and designed lighting and sets. Jan has even acted in the occasional B-movie, playing a zombie, a psycho shrink, and a clueless news reporter. You may visit her on the web at www.jmnpublications.com.


 
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