BWW Review: It All Comes Down To A CHRISTMAS STORY at Toby's
Hang your stockings, mull your beverage of choice and light up your leg lamp, then go to Toby's in Columbia to see A Christmas Story, The Musical, music and lyrics written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Joseph Robinette. It's a sweet series of youthful holiday escapades full of quirky characters, brought to you with a wealth of warm fuzzies, in Toby's usual heartwarming style.
Although it hinges on a wafer-thin plotline, the core material in A CHRISTMAS STORY THE MUSICAL has been amusing audiences since Jean Shepherd began sharing 'anti-nostalgiac' anecdotes over the radio waves in the early 1960s. Adapting his recountings into print (Shepherd insisted he was NOT a writer) at the fierce urging of Shel Silverstein, who recorded and transcribed Shepherd's radio programs, some of this material made its way into Playboy Magazine, where Silverstein was a regular contributor of articles and cartoons. Shepherd eventually published the most popular of these transcribed stories as In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.
The musical, the most recent iteration, is based upon the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark. The story, parts of Shepherd's "novel" (he insisted it was NOT a collection of short stories) has become a holiday favorite, as has the musical adaptation, first performed in 2009. Toby's, known for offering family favorites, delivers again. In a move sure to delight proud families and guarantee a season of full houses, director Shawn Kettering collects two full casts of fresh-faced young talent to play the childrens' parts, dubbing them the Willies and the Nillies- er, sorry; the Hebees and the Jebees. I'm delighted to report that the Hebees are full of vocal talent and stage presence both collectively and individually.
The terraced seating surrounding Toby's stage-slash-buffet floor assures good views from everywhere in the house. It's snug, so bring a minimum of coats and peripherals. Both brunch and dinner menus offer plentiful variety. Tonight's bountiful bar includes a sweet potato and apple chunks dish, coated in cinnamon sauce studded with cranberries. The special show drink is frozen hot chocolate with fancy silver dragees scattered on top like holiday ornaments blown onto a snowdrift.
The opening of Act I introduces us to Ralphie, the hero of our story, and Jean Shepherd the radio personality. David Bosley Reynolds as Jean is a natural choice: his rich mellow voice makes him a dreamy narrator. In the role of Ms. Shields, Ralphie's teacher, played by Jessica Bennett, is bookishly alluring, full of charm and sass, with great legs below and great pipes above. As Ralphie's parents, Heather Beck and Jeffrey Shankle are individually exquisite and together deliver excellent "married couple" chemistry. Ralphie is played tonight by Evan Christy, an extremely strong young performer in every aspect. He is one of many junior actors making their Toby's debut, sixteen, including the Jebees cast. In the slightly less demanding but potentially disastrous role of Ralphie's younger brother Randy, another debuting youngster, Chrysocyon "Sonny" Huza oozes kid-ness without any hackneyed cutesy affectations. Director Shawn Kettering wisely avoids adding saccharine to a story that's had a number of 'glow-ups' since the premier of its core material.
Musical director Ross Scott Rawlings arranges the orchestration to be lively and upbeat, notable due to the material- I like the musical numbers, don't get me wrong, but they're not particularly sticky or singable. The extra pizazz is provided by a marvelous group of unseen musicians, (particular nods to Mike Barber on trumpet and Steve Haaser on woodwinds), conducted this evening by Nathan Scavilla.
Choreography, by Tina Marie DeSimone and Mark Minnick, often accompanying rolling or rotational set pieces, is energetic, expressive and engaging. The young cast members are comfortable and self-possessed during each moment of their blocking/choreography. Act II gives us a wonderful tap number that features Jessica Bennett (Miss Shields) and Jack Patterson (Scut Farkus), but many musical sequences feature plot-relevant blocking rather than dancing as such: "What A Mother Does" and "Before The Old Man Comes Home" are great examples of this.
If you haven't seen any form of A CHRISTMAS STORY, you'll enjoy this production. It's quirky and endearing without sticky cuteness. If you've seen any form of A CHRISTMAS STORY and liked it, this is a pleasing rendition. If someone you love likes A CHRISTMAS STORY, bring them to the show because that's a nice thing to do. It's a good meal and great gift that doesn't take up any space on the counter or in the closet. It's got a lot of heart, a little goofiness and many excellent performers. Who could want much more?
A CHRISTMAS STORY THE MUSICAL plays at Toby's through January 5th, 2020. The following production, Kinky Boots, book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper (based on the 2005 British film Kinky Boots, written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth) debuts at Toby's January 10th, 2020.
Toby's Dinner Theatre is in Columbia, Maryland, easily accessed from 29 Southbound, with plenty of free parking all around the building. The surrounding neighborhood is likely to be busier because of the annual holiday light display, so make sure to allow plenty of travel time.
Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia,5900 Symphony Woods Road; Columbia, MD 21044. For additional information including pricing, buffet menu and directions, visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.
For tickets, phone the box office at 410-730-8311, 301-596-6161 or 1-800-88-TOBYS 10 am - 9 pm. Doors open at 6pm Tuesday through Saturday evenings, with dinner from 6:30-7:20 for an 8 pm showtime. Wednesday and Sunday Matinees, the buffet is 10:30-11:50 am for a 12:30 pm show. Sunday evening supper is at 5:30 pm, with a 7 pm showtime. The show runs about one and a half hours, including a 20 minute intermission.
Photo: Heather Marie Beck, Jeffrey Shankle, Chrysocyon Huza and Evan Christy as the Parker family. Photo Credit: Jeri Tidwell Photograph.