Dallas — Wanna see a sublimely silly, high-kicking chorus line of lamps shaped like legs in fishnet stockings? How about a hilariously frenetic western shoot-out featuring pint-sized protagonists galloping to the beat on hobbyhorses? All this and a lively, lyrical score are yours for a ticket to A Christmas Story, The Musical, the buoyant, lyrical and nostalgic Dallas Summer Musicals holiday show onstage at the Music Hall at Fair Park.
The new musical, based on the popular 1983 film and stories of radio personality Jean Shepherd, features an upbeat, catchy score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul with a stage-savvy book by Joseph Robinette. The current production (a partnership of Big League Productions, Inc, Dallas Summer Musicals and others) closely mirrors the Broadway premiere that garnered three Tony Award nominations in 2013, including Best New Musical. To summarize the crowded credits page: tour director Matt Lenz models his approach on original Broadway director John Rando. Scenic, costume lighting design, and chorography in the show are also “based on” the Broadway parent. That said, the adaptation works smashingly, whatever its genealogy.
Kids rule—and tap dance and sing their hearts out—in this happy, evocative show that happens inside a Michael Carnahan’s set design, a kind of wreath-shaped ice-cave framing a gingerbread-looking house with a ’40s-style stove and school desks. The effect is nicely chilly and warm, depending on Charlie Morrison’s lighting.
Nearly half the 25-member cast is made up of young actors between 9 and 12, and all are energetic, talented and living their dream on the stage, night after night. The cast includes Dallas-area students, Grace Moore and Peyton Nicholson. All these enthusiastic contemporary young actors share the same determination and high hopes as the show’s bespectacled hero-wimp of yesteryear, Ralphie Parker, a role shared here by Evan Gray and Colton Maurer. Growing up in Indiana in the ’40s, Ralphie schemes and dreams his way through December, conjuring all the tricks in his fevered nine-year-old imagination to compel his parents, and/or Santa, to bring him a Red Ryder carbine-action BB gun (now available on the Internet for $38.09, excluding shipping).
Nobody worries about the implications of kids and Guns with a capital G—nobody but Mother (Susannah Jones) who worries Ralphie will “shoot your eye out.” His dad, always referred to as The Old Man (Christopher Swan) grouses about the failing furnace, swears like a son-of-a-bitch and obsesses about one day winning a crossword puzzle award. Swan is a bald and bland grouch for the most part, which makes his explosion into the ecstasy of winning all the more fun. I laughed out loud at the hilariously absurd song and dance number, “A Major Award,” featuring lampshades, leg lamps and the ensemble kicking it up in celebration of that joyous event when it finally happens.
That’s basically the plot—and all the episodes familiar from the movie are here, perked and freshened with song and dance. Ralphie descends the stairs wearing the ridiculous pink bunny pajamas he must endure and confronts a cranky Santa and his drunken elves. From a double-dog-dare to lick a frozen flagpole to the tight-faced Miss Shields (Avital Asuleen), we witness one boy’s plan of attack to get what he most desires, enacted in words and music.
Chris Carsten is an unobtrusive and wryly humorous Jean Shepherd, the narrator of the show, telling stories of his boyhood from a sepia-toned adult perspective and even occasionally high-fiving his younger self in a conspiring spirit.
Maurer is a bright-eyed and admirably stubborn Ralphie. He delivers his songs and dialogue in a big, throaty voice with a pro’s timing and clear enunciation. Maurer is totally adorable (sorry, big guy) outfitted in Lisa Zinni’s glowing furry white chaps in the fantasy number “Ralphie to the Rescue.” Dream on, Ralphie!
Jones is a wistfully loving Mother, comically delivering wordless clues to her befuddled crossword addict husband, but also standing her ground when push comes to principles. Jones has a clear, unforced soprano voice, giving heart to the show’s most melodic song, “Just Like That” as she advises her son about how time and incidents collide suddenly to form meaning for us. Something like that. Loved the song.
The flashiest number in the show, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” happens midway through Act II, when choreographer Warren Carlyle gives his crackerjack tap-dancers something to heat up about. And these kids land it. Ralphie’s hopes are dashed when he gets a mere C+ on his paper declaring his passion for the BB gun. He was sure his theme was so terrific, his teacher would beg his parents to reward him with his wish. Forget it. In a strapless red sequined dress Asuleen’s schoolmarm persona shifts into Mame-style dancing gear, as she leads the troupe to a toe-tapping finale., featuring hot-shot dancer Seth Judice in top hat and polished tap shoes. Whoops and hollers far Seth and company from the opening night crowd.
No be-careful-what-you-wish-for warnings in this show. Ralphie knows exactly what he wants, and in a holiday show we’re pretty darned sure he’s gonna get it, even if he dropped the F-bomb under duress. In the earworm jingle “It All Comes Down to Christmas,” reprised from the opening ensemble number, that knowledge is confirmed big time. Merry Christmas, Ralphie!