The holiday spirit is alive and well and living at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, where A Christmas Story, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Joseph Robinette's delightful musical inspired by the cult 1983 film of the same name, has returned to New York City for a three-week run. A 5,600-seat venue may seem like a dangerous choice for a show filled to the brim with small, distinctly human emotions, but not to worry. Director John Rando makes sure this warm, special piece isn't swallowed up by its surroundings.
As in the film, the stage adaptation harkens back to a simpler time in American history, a bygone era (the 1940s) where one child's wish for a BB gun as a Christmas present is greeted with a "boys will be boys" attitude instead of the assumption that he's a sociopath. All that young Ralphie Parker (Jake Lucas) wants is this Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun, but "you'll shoot your eye out" is the standard response from his parents, the kindly Mother (Erin Dilly) and cantankerous Old Man (John Bolton), and stern teacher Miss Shields (Caroline O'Connor). With Santa's visit only a few short weeks away, it's up to Ralphie to convince his folks that this potentially dangerous toy is the only thing he wants — but that's harder than it looks when you're an elementary-school lad up against bullies, swear words, and triple-dog dares.
Most impressive about A Christmas Story is how its Tony-nominated creators stayed so true to the source material (the film was coauthored by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, and Bob Clark, as well as Shepherd's book of short stories In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash), while at the same time crafting a thoroughly original version for this new medium. Shepherd's dry-witted onscreen narration has been replaced by an actual character representing the prolific writer and radio host, here played by Dan Lauria of The Wonder Years. Fantasy sequences, like Ralphie vision of saving his family from burglars with his BB Gun are now eye-popping production numbers. And who needs one of the infamous leg lamps when you can have an entire kick line of them? Robinette's book and Pasek and Paul's score are sharp and funny, packing an emotional gut punch that you don't see coming. And that the film never had.
With the exception of newcomer Lucas (and Noah Baird, who plays Ralphie's younger brother, Randy), the principal company is the same as it was when A Christmas Story opened on Broadway last season at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The performances by the rubber-limbed Bolton, heartfelt Dilly, outrageously good O'Connor, and quiet, graceful Lauria have all deepened, with the adorable Baird and very impressive Lucas seamlessly stepping into leading roles. (Lucas, it should be noted, comes from an incredibly talented family; his sister Sydney Lucas is the brilliant child lead in The Public Theater's Fun Home. A hardworking ensemble of children (including tap sensation Luke Spring, who also returns for this engagement) and adults make Warren Carlyle's exuberant and well-defined choreography look easy.
Physically, Rando's production looks the same as it did last year, with Walt Spangler's snow-covered gingerbread house of a set gliding in and out, period-specific costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, and candy cane-colored lighting by Howell Binkley. Ken Travis must be singled out for crisp and clear sound design that makes sure every single word (and every single instrument) is heard in the farthest reaches of the auditorium and doesn't seem like a million miles away.
On Santa's list of holiday-themed Broadway musicals, A Christmas Story is at the very top of the good column. Let's hope it returns for years to come.