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Theater review: ‘A Christmas Story: The Musical’

Dennis King Published: November 27, 2012

NEW YORK – In recent years – thanks to constant cable TV play – “A Christmas Story” has joined “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” among the most beloved holiday movies ever. Based on the nostalgic but craggy short stories of writer and radio raconteur Jean Shepherd, this quirky rust-belt tale of an Indiana boy’s desperate efforts to get a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas now gets the full song-and-dance stage treatment in a new Broadway musical.

Johnny Rabe
Johnny Rabe

“A Christmas Story: The Musical,” just opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, finally comes to New York after receiving mixed reviews and undergoing considerable revamping during a five-city tryout tour in late 2011.

Backed by producer Peter Billingsley, the former child actor who famously essayed the BB-gun craving Ralphie in the 1983 movie and has gone on to become a successful Hollywood producer (“Iron Man”) and director (“Couples Retreat”), the musical boasts the talents of some considerable theater veterans.

Ably directed by Tony Award-winning John Rando (“Urinetown the Musical”), from a faithful book by Joseph Robinette (“Charlotte’s Web”), the play hits many of the highlights that fans of the movie will undoubtedly expect – Ralphie (Johnny Rabe) harboring elaborate fantasies of wielding his trusty Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action BB Gun; Ralphie’s “Old Man” (John Bolton) battling belching furnaces and winning his Major Award, that gloriously tacky leg lamp; Ralphie’s pal Flick getting his tongue stuck to a frozen flag pole; Ralphie’s rage-filled fight with bullies Scut Farkus and Grover Dill, and Ralphie and little bother Randy (Zac Ballard) queuing up to plead their case to a harried department story Santa.

Set to the serviceable but not terribly memorable music and lyrics of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, making their Broadway debut, the tale unfolds in several big musical set pieces (cleverly choreographed by Warren Carlyle, also of the new “Chaplin” musical). Best among them is “A Major Award,” featuring Bolton and a chorus doing a Rockettes-style kick line with glowing leg lamps, and “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” with an exuberant Caroline O’Connor (as teacher Miss Shields) and a chorus of tiny tap dancing prodigies.

In key roles, Bolton is fine and blustery as the Old Man; Erin Dilly has some sweet moments as Ralphie’s worried Mom, and veteran character actor Dan Luria provides a cohesive and crusty voice as narrator Jean Shepherd. And in the crucial role of Ralphie, young Johnny Rabe (already a veteran of several big musicals) shows more knowing “show-biz” precocity than the unpretentiously naïve and goggled-eyed Billingsley.

And therein lies one inescapable problem for this musical. Not only is it much more syrupy and sentimental than the movie (note the cloying emotionalism of the song “What a Mother Does”), it also never quite shakes off the considerable shadow of the film and it’s indelible cast. Try as we might to play along, it’s hard to imagine a crankier Old Man than Darren McGavin; a more charmingly long-suffering Mom than Melinda Dillon or a more perfect Ralphie than Billingsley.

Shepherd’s gravelly remembrances played perfectly through his words on the page and miraculously translated (thanks largely to his voice-over narration) perfectly to the screen. “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” however, comes with a glitzy cloak of Broadway tinsel that alas muffles the story’s unadorned, childlike honesty.

- Dennis King