In 1983, a small holiday film was released to little fanfare and middling box office receipts, but just like The Wizard of Oz, television gave the movie a new life and a devoted fan base. The movie now airs on a 24-hour cycle on TBS beginning on Christmas Eve to the delight of its many fans. That little movie that has become a bona fide classic and gave us the leg lamp as a cultural icon is, of course, A Christmas Story.
In November of 2012, the film came to life on the Broadway stage as A Christmas Story – The Musical, earning rave reviews and Tony nominations for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book, and was named one of the Top Ten Shows of 2015 by Time magazine. Since its Broadway run, the show has mounted national tours during the holiday season and the show has made a stop at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre until December 11 (the show moves to Buffalo, then Detroit and Grand Rapids to close out the holidays).
If you’ve seen the movie then you’ll be familiar with everything in the show. It’s all there from the trip to Higbee’s department store to see the window display, to Ralphie’s dream of getting a Red Rider BB Gun for Christmas to the rambunctious Bumpus hounds. The show also includes the tongue on the flagpole, Ralphie’s Wild West fantasy and the trip to see Santa that ends with kids plunging down a slide. Everything you know and love about the movie is in the show. Plus there are songs and big production numbers and … the leg lamp, which even gets its own big Broadway-style production number.
If you haven’t seen the movie, the story centers on the Parker family from a small town in Indiana. It’s 1940, times are still tough but people do what they can to get by. Ralphie Parker just wants a BB gun for Christmas, but his mother insists he’ll shoot his eye out. As hard as he tries to get the message across to her that this is what he wants, something always goes wrong to put him on Santa’s naughty list. His dad is a colorful character, with colorful language (humorously gibberish so as not to offend), who has his own dream — to win a contest. And when he does, that fabled object becomes the center of his universe, so how on earth will Ralphie ever get that BB gun?
A Christmas Story – The Musical is full of terrific performances from the main cast, who don’t attempt to replicate the indelible performances from the movie’s cast, but make the roles familiar enough that they don’t seem like completely different characters. Christopher Swan plays The Old Man with just the right amount of bluster, especially when he gets upset and lets loose with his blue streak. After the show, Swan said getting the “cursing” down was the most difficult part because if you try to wing it, something real will slip out so learning the gibberish was imperative. Even if The Old Man seems a bit self-centered, Swan always lets us know that he still adores his family.
Susannah Jones’ Mother is sweet, yet harried, holding her family together even as the furnace, the car and Christmas falls apart around her family. Jones exudes a motherly love for the children, going out of her way to misdirect her husband from exploding at Ralphie at one point, making up games to get her youngest son Randy to eat, and just holding the family together in general. The final moments with Jones and Swan showing the love between the Parkers may even get you a little misty-eyed.
11-year-old Arick Brooks — who is a real charmer off stage — is terrific as Randy, the youngest Parker. Randy is a little odd, to say the least, with his quirks like spending time in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, and Brooks does a magnificent job, really evoking memories of Ian Petrella’s performance in the movie. The lead role of Ralphie is played by two young actors, and for the opening night performance Austin Molinaro took on the role. From the audience, this kid really looks like Peter Billingsly did in the movie but he still makes the role his own. He’s got a terrific voice and really portrays all of Ralphie’s life, including his daydreams, to perfection. This show has some truly talented child actors in the cast, and we have to give a special shout out to Lucas Marinetto who plays the bully Scott Farkus, and tap dances up a storm, holding his own (and maybe even showing up) Angelica Richie, who plays school teacher Miss Shields.
The show also retains the movie’s narration, here done on stage by Chris Carsten playing the author of the original story, Jean Shepherd (who is also the grown up version of Ralphie). Carsten does a terrific job of filling in parts of the story, and even when he’s on stage while a scene is unfolding, he never intrudes into the scene or jars the audience out of it. It’s a tough job being a narrator who is also an active participant in the show, but Carsten does the job extremely well.
While the story is familiar and the cast give their roles the familiarity of the movie, the production designers have worked overtime to make the sets eye-popping. The Parker home is a two-story marvel that move up and down stage as needed and then disappears behind the various backdrops. It certainly is the show’s centerpiece. The production team and director have come up with a very clever way to give the family car movement as they go on their travels to Higbee’s and to find a Christmas tree, and Santa’s slide is also a marvelously large set piece, complete with short-tempered elves. And yes, there are actual Bumpus hounds that chase The Old Man across the stage several times and destroy Christmas dinner.
Stage adaptations of movies are always a tricky thing to get right, especially if the movie is as beloved as A Christmas Story … and they really hit the nail on the head with this one. Nostalgic enough to bring back memories of everything you love about the movie, and it never tries to “improve” on anything making this just as delightful an experience as watching the movie is. With catchy tunes and impressive dance numbers, this is a holiday gift everyone can enjoy.