BWW Review: A CHRISTMAS STORY LIVE! is a Joyous, Imaginative Adaptation, Despite Inherent Problems
For me, there has always been an inherently cynical, bah-humbug spirit that pervades the majority of the A CHRISTMAS STORY film. The 1983 movie, which brought the phrase "You'll shoot your eye out," to basic cable for 24-straight hours every Christmas, is ultimately the antithesis of nearly every other Christmas classic. Though the film is beloved as a holiday cult-favorite, at the heart of the story is a young boy living in constant fear of his parents, bullies, missing out on the gift of his dreams, and practically everything else around him. There's also the issue that the boy's sole (increasingly problematic) wish is to get a gun for Christmas.
Despite that depressing take on the holidays, the musical version of the story that was broadcast live on FOX on Sunday night was able to keep the film's story and structure, but to infuse it with an imagination and winsomeness that transformed it into a tale of childhood wonder and persistence. Granted it was a mostly inconsequential tale, but the vibrancy of the score and the performances made it an enjoyable, if not all that memorable, viewing experience.
The broadcast opened with an unnecessary, seemingly lip-synched/synthesized performance by pop artist Bebe Rexha. However, once the musical began in earnest, we were introduced to a Ghost of Christmas Past-type narrator; two-time Tony winner Matthew Broderick as the grown-up version of Ralphie, the scared little boy. He introduces us to the world of Hohman, Ind. and after two straight "I Want" songs to open the action, it is clear that more than anything in the world, young Ralphie (played by Andy Walken) wants "a Red Ryder Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and a thing that tells time," and he has just under a month to convince his parents to get it for him. Ralphie's imaginative plots to get the gun become more transportive when set to music. The natural buoyancy of a musicalized fantasy scene just naturally makes the proceedings more happy than they were originally on screen.
As Ralphie's parents, former SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE star Maya Rudolph and recent WAITRESS Dr. Pomatter, Chris Diamantopoulos, were sanitized versions of the rougher characters from the film. Their performances provide a humanity and gentleness to roles that are seen through the eyes of an unreliable narrator in the film. Though Rudolph comes from a musical family, and has often sung in the past, unfortunately, she wasn't able to make the showtunes of A CHRISTMAS STORY fit her voice. However, the all-around showmanship of Diamantopoulos was one of the night's revelations, and his "A Major Award" was a perfect song-and-dance-man throwback.
The musical that followed the stilted opening was a silly, but disjointed affair that will likely improve on future viewings, uninterrupted by commercial breaks. As is often the case with these live TV musicals, the performances were all solid, and some were even fantastic, but they were never able to completely coalesce into a cohesive production.
That's likely not the fault of this musical, or even this particular production, but instead of the medium, as none of the previous incarnations have gotten this exactly right either. Instead the musical felt like a series of sketches with loose plot threads connected that would eventually circle back around to be tied up, even if it was more than an hour later.
However, what did work in this A CHRISTMAS STORY worked very well, and it might just be the thing that turns this into a holiday classic of its own. Perhaps it is the spirit of holiday generosity I'm feeling, but the moments in the broadcast that felt the most seamless and authentic were the ones in which the ensemble of children performed. A group of incredibly talented youngsters, some with Broadway credits, gave joyous, triple-threat performances that provided the affair with much of its heart and humor. From "When You're a Wimp" to "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!" (more on this one shortly), it was impossible not to watch their completely theatrical, if not a little cheesy, production numbers with a smile on your face.
As obstacles are continually thrown between Ralphie and his "Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun," from accidental profanity to out-of-body pummelings, Walken avoided the trap of his namesake and delivered a quality performance in this live musical. Not only did he look like the film Ralphie, a young Peter Billingsley (who served as a producer on the show's Broadway run), but he also carried much of the score with the chops of a pro. As the older version of the character, Broderick was surprisingly sturdy throughout, though he stumbled over more than his fair share of lines. He even gave off occasional Ferris Bueller vibes talking directly to the camera. However, his strongest moments came at the end of the broadcast, as he tied the memory play together in a tidy, sentimental Christmas bow.
The more meandering nature of the musical provided the broadcast with two of its highlight performances, unsurprisingly from two of the more seasoned Broadway performers in the cast. First as Ralphie's teacher Ms. Shields, Tony winner Jane Krakowski did what she does best and stole scenes with her myriad of talents. The aforementioned "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!" gave her the chance to show the wider national audience what we in the theatre community have known for decades, that there really isn't anything that she can't do.
Likewise, SNL alum and former Broadway Elphaba Ana Gasteyer provided the musical's only true breakthrough vocal performance in one of the two songs added for the TV adaptation. Her comedic chops and incredible belt made me wish, as much as I enjoy Rudolph, that the two former SNL co-stars had swapped roles. Gasteyer's debut performance of "In the Market for a Miracle" could very easily go down as the most entertaining solo in this recent rash of live musicals, and could provide the musical's song-writing team with the E for their eventual EGOT.
In addition to a peppy score by Oscar and Tony (and soon to be Grammy)-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, one of the biggest strengths of the production was in the direction and design. Roundabout Theatre Company Associate Artistic Director Scott Ellis helmed the production from the stage side with live musical regular Alex Rudzinski directing for the camera. The mix of theatrical quick-changes, creative camera work, and some of the best fake snow I've ever seen gave the production a more fully-realized feel than we're used to from these broadcasts. Following the trend established by GREASE LIVE!, rather than airing solely from a series of soundstages, A CHRISTMAS STORY utilized a beautiful series of indoor and outdoor sets that brought you directly inside the world of Hohman.
I also have to say that I appreciate the decision to provide applause at the end of songs. Even if there is no traditional audience in attendance, it provides a button to the number, and prevents them from feeling hollow otherwise. Similarly, I like FOX's touch of incorporating a "curtain call" at the end of the night as well.
Also a part of the broadcast was what was billed as the first ever live motion picture commercial. The principal cast of the upcoming musical film THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, including Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Keala Settle, and more performed the song "Come Alive." The crossover makes perfect since, as not only is it being distributed by FOX's corporate partner (for now) 20th Century Fox, but like A CHRISTMAS STORY, features songs by Pasek and Paul. (My review of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN will be released on BroadwayWorld on Wednesday morning.)
As has been the case throughout all of these live musicals dating back to THE SOUND OF MUSIC in 2013, none of the productions have been able to match the artistic product of their stage versions. However, FOX is getting closer, and A CHRISTMAS STORY proves that the source material doesn't have to be a well-known musical for a live version to work. In fact, this broadcast might have benefitted because most viewers were likely not even aware that there was a musical version of A CHRISTMAS STORY.
While I hold fast to my belief that the film version is far too dark for its holiday favorite status, FOX's musical adaptation rounded down the sharp edges, added a degree of theatrical magic, and produced an entertaining, family affair that ultimately found a way to be touching, even if it didn't transcend to more than that.