With the holiday season upon us, New York's stages are beginning to fill with Yuletide entertainments vying for our affection (and hard-earned cash). The newest offering, A Christmas Story, now at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, is based on a movie that has inexorable pull--one suspects that fans who have made the original film (of the same title) as much a part of the holiday as cookies and milk for Santa will flock to the show out of habit. Fortunately, devotees of the film, as well as theatergoers who have never seen (or even liked) the movie, will be pleased with what they find on stage.
Book writer Joseph Robinette faithfully replicates all of the high-points of the source material--once again narrated by the tale's author, Jean Shepherd (the affable Dan Lauria)--that centers on little Ralphie Parker (Johnny Rabe) and his mishap-strewn quest in 1940s Indiana for the ultimate gift: a Red Ryder Range Model Carbine Action BB Gun. Moreover, the creators of the musical have imbued Ralphie's tale with an unmistakable affection for good, old-fashioned musical comedy that consistently charms.
There are a host of winning performances in A Christmas Story, led by Rabe's beaming but never cloying turn as the precocious pre-pubescent kid, whose imagination runs wild in the month leading to Santa's arrival. Rabe also has a healthy set of pipes that allow him to belt out Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's period-sounding tunes with appealing verve.
As Ralphie's folks, John Bolton and Erin Dilly – guided surely by director John Rando – turn in performances that are hybrids of naturalism and cartoonishness. (They are adults as viewed through a kid's eyes.) Bolton makes for a loveable goofball whose aspirations for recognition find their pinnacle in the arrival of a tacky lamp that he's won from a crossword contest he's entered. Smartly, the movie's iconic visual -- a woman's leg clad in a fishnet stocking that's topped with a fringed shade – actually becomes the centerpiece for choreographer Warren Carlyle's funniest production number.
Dilly, who channels Betty Crocker, Donna Reed, and just a little bit of Florence Henderson in her Mrs. Brady days, delivers a sunny matriarch that's beautifully moderated by an edge of frustration. Further, her clarion vocals have such warmth, particularly when she delivers a lush ballad meant to reassure her kids that they're safe, that they cast a glow to the last row of the balcony.
There's also some superlative work from Caroline O'Connor as Ralphie's stern teacher Miss Shields. When she becomes the centerpiece of his fantasies about what he might do with his BB gun (protect his classmates from silent film-inspired villains) or about why he'll never get the gun, the seemingly frumpy O'Connor blossoms as a song-and-dance woman extraordinaire. She is also particularly choice in "You'll Put Your Eye Out" – a speakeasy fantasy filled with some terrific 1920s costumes from Elizabeth Hope Clancy -- when it looks like Ralphie's plots may have been foiled once and for all. The other star of this number is 9-year-old Luke Spring, one of the kids from the energetic but healthily ordinary young people's ensemble. He delivers a tap specialty like a pint-sized Tommy Tune that literally stops the show.
Should A Christmas Story purists be wondering, the marauding dogs that plague Ralphie's dad also make several appearances, including the mayhem-filled Christmas day sequence that leads to the Parker's very non-traditional holiday dinner.
The show does suffer from one major flaw: a hyper-kinetic perkiness that comes primarily from Howell Binkley's intrusive lighting design and Walt Spangler's garishly conceived scenic design that frames the action in what looks like buckets of curlicued buttercream frosting. Worse still, the bursts of effects and color in Binkley's design actually distract from some of the terrific embellishments in Carlyle's clever dances. (Half the audience was laughing at something in one routine that I'd missed because my eye had been pulled to a swirling snowflake on one side of the stage.)
While both the movie and musical reach their oh-so-traditional happy endings, it's to the creators' credit that the show's final scene contains one tiny detail not found in the film that produces gales of laughter. Originality in a movie-turned-musical? God bless us, everyone.