Dallas — The little boy with his tongue stuck to the flagpole after a triple-dog dare, the whiney kid brother who won’t eat, the reading lamp shaped like a woman’s leg, and, above all, the child who longs for a “Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle”—all these have become part of the American collective conscience, thanks to the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. After an initial flop at the box office, Jean Shepherd’s fond reimagining of American childhood moved from cult classic to cultural icon, thanks to home video release; for many Americans, an annual viewing of A Christmas Story on the living room flat screen is as much a part of the holiday season as presents under the tree and gaudy front-yard light shows.
Inevitably, the adventures of 9-year-old Ralphie and his cohort of family and friends in fictional Hohman, Indiana, circa 1940, made it to the Broadway stage in a musical version in 2012; that live edition, copiously decorated with song-and-dance numbers by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—who would later win a Tony for Dear Evan Hansen and an Oscar for La La Land—tours the hinterlands annually at holiday time in a lavish version now playing in a short run through Sunday at Winspear Opera House on the AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series.
As a good musical should, A Christmas Story: The Musical distills and enhances the best elements of its source material. In this case, the dream-like, episodic nature of the movie version, with its intense, child’s-eye view of the world, translates naturally into music and choreography. The sets by Walt Spangler and Michael Carnahan further evoke this vision by placing Ralphie’s world in a giant snow globe, evoking the self-contained, sometimes magical world of American childhood.
Part of the power of A Christmas Story lies in the engagingly honest portrayal of characters: Ralphie sees his father as a thundering, all-powerful presence, while the audience sees a low-level, Depression-era white collar worker, desperately clinging to self-esteem while trying to pay bills, keep a cranky furnace and decaying Oldsmobile operating, and maintain his manhood. In this production, Paul Nobrega maneuvers this shaky territory appealingly, particularly capturing the anxieties and exhilaration of his big number, “A Major Award.”
The role of the mother is likewise beautifully fulfilled by Briana Gantsweg. The musical version goes the movie one better with its vision of a woman accepting her inescapable function as mother and housewife, and Gantsweg brings a vocally gorgeous and dramatically touching rendition of this concept in her song “What a Mother Does.” Lauren Kent brings just the right level of exaggeration as Miss Shields, the elementary school teacher, playing up our childhood teachers not as they really were, but as the towering figures we all remember. Kent’s memorable moment arrives when, in a dream sequence, she transforms into a threatening chanteuse in a 1930s-style speakeasy people by tiny mobsters and molls.
The biggest challenge of transferring A Christmas Story to the musical stage was undoubtedly that most major roles and much of the chorus has to be played by children. To that end, director Matt Lenz and choreographer Warren Carlyle succeeded in creating an efficient staging evoking a sense of childlike energy and impetus—nothing breathtaking here, but always visually engaging in a style appropriate for a work that is essentially a children’s show aimed at grownups.
Ian Shaw, who will alternate with Michael Norman in the role of Ralphie for the Dallas run, held center stage winningly at the Wednesday night opening, personifying the catastrophes of pre-adolescence with insight and carrying the vocal demands with clear, confident Broadway styling; Jasper Davenport convincingly took on the role of the even more worry-ridden kid brother Randy. Chris Carsten brought the requisite balance of calm humor and affection as the narrator/Jean Shepherd.
The score by Pasek and Paul clipped along nicely Wednesday under the direction of Andrew Smithson with a small orchestra of winds, percussion, and keyboards; the lighthearted tunes didn’t break any new ground in 2012, but carry the story neatly, with impeccable craftsmanship and momentum. As with many of the touring shows initially conceived for Broadway theaters, some of the intimacy (and about a third of the words) get lost in a room designed for the grand gestures of Puccini, Verdi, and Wagner, but the tenderness, comedy, and humanity of the show came across well nonetheless. As with the original movie version, it’s impossible to watch A Christmas Story: The Musical, without laughing out loud a lot and crying a little, too, at the foibles and follies of Ralphie and the flawed but profoundly loveable characters who populate his world.