Review: A CHRISTMAS STORY at Ahmanson

Holiday musical aims a BB gun at nostalgia

By: Dec. 17, 2023
Review: A CHRISTMAS STORY at Ahmanson
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Nothing exposes the soft underbelly of an otherwise normal-seeming family than the holiday season. On the cinematic side, you have only to ask Chevy Chase, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eddie Murphy or the casts of any Christmas movie in which light displays, presents, or fulfill-at-all-cost holiday memories hang in the balance. If the mercury is dropping and somebody wants something for Christmas, writers feel they can pretty much cue the funny, the nostalgia or the nostalgically funny.

Their ranks of course include Jean Shepherd, the late writer and radio man whose 1983 film A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) has snaked its way up the creative pipeline from holiday favorite to TV remount and sequel to Broadway musical. Featuring a book by Joseph Robinette and a score by a pre-EVAN HANSEN Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL had its Broadway premiere in 2012 followed by a couple of touring engagements. The new production, all smiles and sparkles and boasting a knockout group of young performers at its center, is at the Ahmanson Theatre through December 31. Produced by Center Theatre Group by special arrangement with Big League Productions, Inc., this production directed by Matt Lenz is not part of a tour and appears to be the work’s L.A.-area premiere.

Lenz’s production is solid family stuff, a little bit cock-eyed, and easy on the treacle. Knowledge of the original movie is by no means a prerequisite to enjoyment of ACS: TM. If you’re craving certain iconic moments from the movie, rest assured you’ll find them, possibly even amped up or with a musical number built around them. Adapting and expanding upon John Rando’s original direction, Lenz knows the story he is telling and does his best to keep this holiday engine steadfastly chugging down the tracks. Kudos always for including diverse faces in the casting, even for a story that’s supposed to be taking place in 1940s Hohman, Indianna where – even the city existed - there wouldn't be an abundance of Black, Brown or Asian faces on the playground at Ralphie Parker’s school. Here, there are.

With Christmas fast approaching, Ralphie (played by Kai Edgar), age 9, gets it in his head that life as he knows it will end (and end badly) unless he gets a Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle under the tree. As the days and nights tick down to December 24, Ralphie tries to communicate his Christmas wish to everyone and anyone, from his parents to his teacher to a dissolute mall Santa Claus. Most everybody has something else on their minds. When they can be bothered to even consider Ralphie’s greatest wish, the response is the same: a dismissive “You’ll shoot your eye out.” That line is the basis of an Act 2 opening number set in a dreamscape speakeasy in which Ralphie’s teacher (Miss) Shields (Shelley Regner, quite sexy) and a chorus full of flapper-era kids tap, can-can and otherwise bring the house down.

It’s not exactly that Ralphie’s family doesn’t care about the much-coveted gun or is ignoring him, but they’ve got other fish to fry. Perpetual underdog dad (Eric Petersen) is forever doing puzzles and entering contests, figuring a winning entry will boost his status and make him less of a loser. When something breaks down at the Parker household (as it invariably does), dad has to go fix it which he does while spewing out by a colorful stream of mangled (and decidedly PG) profanities. Ralphie’s fearful kid brother Randy (Henry Witcher), travels around in a hilarious snowsuit-cum-straight-jacket, hides in pantries and is the world’s fussiest eater. No matter how nuts things get, Mom (Sabrina Sloan) quietly and uncomplainingly holds the whole family together because that’s – cue the music and the sexism – “What a mother does.” The inopportune arrival of a garish lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg – which dad loves and mom detests – briefly tests the parents’ marital resolve. And boy howdy does the ACS:TM  team get mileage out of that crazy prop!

The story has an adult narrator, (played irony-free by Chris Carsten) to give the older and wiser reflection, but this is every bit Edgar’s story to carry, which this young man does quite winningly. Whether sharing a tearful moment with his mom, bonding with his crazy dad, as the gun-toting hero of a dream sequence or taking on the school bullies, Edgar is across-the-board charismatic without ever being cloying. And while Kai and Witcher get all of the heartfelt family unit scenes (comic and otherwise), the school stuff and ensemble numbers are dispatched by folks like Addalie Burns (whose tap skills are twelve kinds of enviable), Jack Casey (taker on of an infamous “triple dog dare” that he will come to regret) and Jordan Coates and Zeke Bernier as a pair of schoolyard toughs. Top to bottom, from comic chops to song and dance savvy, these young performers light up the Ahmanson brighter than any mall yuletide display.

Slightly offbeat though its source material may be, A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL is also embracing the warmth and nostalgia of a gentler time and of all the holiday trappings that come along with it. So you’ve got your Christmas trees, your snow, your mall displays, your…Chinese restaurant? Working off the designs of the original Broadway team, production scenic designer Michael Carnahan, lighting designer Charlie Morrison and costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy give a Norman Rockwell-ian glow to the proceedings. And a chorus of woofs to Reba and Jethro, the winning Bumpus hounds trained by William Berloni.  

Here's hoping that A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL fills the seats at the Ahmanson to close out a difficult year, and that those seats continue to stay filled as we ring in 2024. As regional theaters across the country continue their rebound from the pandemic, Center Theatre Group is coming off a tough 2023 that included company-wide layoffs, the cancelation of productions and the indefinite shuttering of the Mark Taper Forum, all of which coincided with the arrival of new Artistic Director Snehal Desai. While ACS: TM will be nobody’s idea of cutting-edge  programming, there’s still plenty on stage to admire.

A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL plays through Dec. 31 at the Ahmanson Theatre. 

Photo of the cast by Craig Schwartz Photography.