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BWW Review: Shoot Your Eye at A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL at The Hippodrome

If you're Nutcrackered out, you've Christmas Caroled your last note, can't handle any more Handel, I'd like to suggest A Christmas Story, The Musical, a touring live production based on the eponymous movie. It's at Baltimore's Hippodrome now through December 11th.

If you've ever wondered what's with those leg lamps, the answer is A Christmas Story. If you've ever said "You'll shoot your eye out!," you were, perhaps unknowingly, referencing A Christmas Story. If you already know all about Ralphie and his family to the point quoting movie dialogue as part of your holiday tradition, you are the prime target audience for A Christmas Story, The Musical, music and lyrics written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; book by Joseph Robinette.

The movie, set in 1940, released in 1983 and now a contemporary favorite, is based on the Jean Shepherd novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which was itself based on Jean Shepherd's radio rants, which he termed "anti-nostalgic'. Licking off the sweet coating that time uses to frost memories, Shepherd got to the nitty-gritty of actual life. This may be what the desperate, heartbroken 80's appreciated, and why the film, formerly termed 'sleeper', has achieved cult status and major merchandising. In the movie, it is Jean Shepherd's voice we hear as Adult Ralphie. The movie, by the way, is currently playing in Select Theaters Near You, Check Local Listings.

A Christmas Story, The Musical premiered on Broadway in 2012 and earned itself three Tony nominations, critical praise and big box office. It deserves all of those. It is based on the movie, but also on the writings and radio stories of Jean Shepherd, so Joseph Robinette's book seems a bit more meaty than is the norm with movie-to-stage adaptations. It also re-glazes the story with sweetness and sentimentality, which is okay with me, especially for a holiday show.

Arriving later than I'd meant to, I find $10 parking in the Fayette Street garage, which has 11 levels and is attached to the Fayette Street lobby of the Hippodrome. This is convenient, though the elevator descent is an exercise in forced intimacy. I approach the bar on the way to my seat and notice a flyer promoting a Special Drink, called a Major Award. It has a $10 price tag, ingredients I like and the option to pre-order it for intermission. The attractive young (young! Very young! Down, cougar.) bartender writes my name and drink order on a slip of paper and promises it will be waiting on the side counter. (When I return at intermission, it is indeed waiting, with the slip of paper that has my name, correctly spelled, but the drink is identified as Major Awkward. Yes. Yes, it is.)

Guests at the Hippodrome frequently lament the tightness of the seating. Even in the Orchestra section, if your seats are in the center of the row, it's polite of you to arrive early, as the Wall of Knees is nearly impassable, despite one being slender and spry.

This musical is everything a piece of musical theater ought to be. There is a little prologue with the character of Jean Shepherd, (capable actor Chris Carsten, in his third season with the show) who introduces us to his retrospection using the device of his radio programme, complete with On Air sign, stool, mic and surly-looking, non-eye-contacting 'tech.' The opening that follows the prologue is structured similarly to the opening of State Fair, which I mean as a compliment. We know immediately who is whom and the exact nature of the piece's dramatic crux. Devotees of the movie will find much that is familiar, though there has been some rearrangement, extension, enhancement and addition. Dialogue flows as stage dialogue should: with snappy delivery, different voices and more wit than is common in Real Life. Musical numbers are lively and either reveal character or move the plot, insofar as A Christmas Story has a plot. Scene changes are rapid and full of suggestive, cartoonish, children's holiday pagent-styled elements. Ralphie's home is an adorable cutaway dollhouse which slides pneumatically in and out as needed. Scenic designer Walt Spangler's original Broadway design has been adapted for the touring show by Michael Carnahan, and it works beautifully.

Other tech is a bit uneven- some followspots a shade too slow, body mics that don't come on at the precise time- but overall, the sound quality is good and clear, the lighting doing just what it ought to illuminate the action (plus a swift but lovely sunrise) and some superior quick changes managed by backstage Wardrobe hands.

The costuming, designed for the tour by Lisa Zinni based on Elizabeth Hope Clancy's Broadway costumes, is appropriate for each character and scene and allows for some really fun dance numbers. Warren Carlyle's choreography, adapted for the tour by Jason Sparks, is imaginative and fresh and really crisp. The ensemble of children, who represent about half of the Acting Company, is a talented group of singer/dancers, and manage some of the set pieces with the skill of seasoned performers.

Austin Molinaro as Ralphie is charming, dear, and if some of his notes are a trifle wavery, they're all resoundingly enthusiastic. Arick Brooks as little brother Randy is alternately a live wire and a floppy wet noodle. Susannah Jones as Mother has a wonderful soprano, and two solo numbers which feature it prominently. Angelica Richie as Miss Shields is great fun as a sensuous woman repressed by the social mores of her time and her vocation as a schoolteacher, especially in context of the fantasy sequences. The roles of the parents have been reimagined for the stage and make the parents into much more sympathetic (and attractive) characters. Show-stealing bragging rights go, I'm afraid, (sorry, kids; sorry, hounds) to the fabulously flexible, elegantly articulate Christopher Swan as The Old Man. I can do no better than to quote Alexander Woolcott in his review of I'll Say She Is!: "Surely there should be dancing in the streets when a great clown comic comes to town, and this man is a great clown." Swan handles The Old Man's complex creative swearing with glib unforced naturalness and his bursts of temper with unabashed impotence.

This production should satisfy fans of musical theater, fans of the movie, fans of holiday shows, fans of family-friendly entertainment and really anyone who isn't a Grinch or a Scrooge. Overall, it's warmer, more cute and less disgruntled than its source material, but you're unlikely to need an insulin shot afterwards.

In case such things are important to you, I will mention that this is a non-equity show. The next equity show playing at the Hipp is A Gentleman's Guide To Love And Murder

A Christmas Story, The Musical plays at the Hippodrome through December 11th. Showtimes are 8 pm the 7th through the 10th, with a 2 PM matinee on Saturday. Sunday the 11th, shows are at 1 PM and 6:30 PM. Run time is two hours, 25 minutes, with one intermission

For tickets, phone: 800-982-ARTS;

Or online: BaltimoreHippodrome.com or Ticketmaster.com; Tickets available at the

Hippodrome Box Office (corner of Eutaw St and Baltimore St) and all Ticketmaster outlets.

Hippodrome Theatre

France-Merrick Performing Arts Center

12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201

410-837-7400

Photo credit: Gary Emord Netzley


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