A Christmas Story: The Musical--An Unfortunately Accurate Retelling Of The Worst Holiday Movie Ever

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A Christmas Story plays the Fox Theatre in St. Louis 12/16/14 - 1/4/15.

Christmas is a time for peace on earth and good will towards men. Whether it holds a deep religious meaning for you or you hope to receive this year’s hottest gadget in a gaudy box under your tree, Christmas is a time to gather with family and friends, eat, drink and make merry. It’s also the time when an entire genre of television shows and movies are watched—from “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s A Wonderful Life” to How the Grinch Stole Christmas  and Merry Christmas Charlie Brown to “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “Elf,” millions of people watch their favorite Christmas programs faithfully every year. For many, that includes “A Christmas Story,” the 1983 tale of a 1940 mid-American holiday season widely regarded as a classic.

I am not one of those people. I would even go so far as to say “A Christmas Story” is quite possibly my least favorite movie of all time. That’s from somebody who reviews movies on a regular basis; including suck stinkers are “The International,” “Knowing” and “Before I Go To Sleep.” So why on earth would I ever go see A Christmas Story: The Musical at the Fox Theatre?

Good question. The answer is two-fold: I would happily sit in the Fox all night and watch absolutely nothing—the theatre itself is just that cool—and theatre is different than film. Film is nearly always superficial. You see what the director wants you to see, what he or she could get out of their actors, and with a little luck you get that without a lot of meddling from studio suits who usually don’t know squat about what the audience will want. Theatre slows it all down, opens up the characters, and gives you greater depth. I’ll give you an example: I love John Cusack movies. I think I’ve seen them all, or nearly so; and only one of them truly made me want to go back to Blockbuster and argue for my dollar back: “High Fidelity.” It turns out Jack Black can even ruin a John Cusack movie for me. Years later I was given the opportunity to see a musical version of the film presented regioanlly by the New Line Theatre, and I absolutely loved it. The live theatre did what the film could not—it put me inside the Cusack character’s head. Thus I found myself at the Fox, hoping that the magic and intimacy of live theatre would capture my attention, perhaps even my heart, which has been accused of being two sizes too small for not liking “A Christmas Story.”

Did it work? Well…a little, I suppose.  Part of me always wanted to like the movie. I’ve always been a fan of Darren McGavin, from his role on Kolchak: The Night Stalker to his role as Gus Sands, the sportswriter in “The Natural.” I appreciate the work of Melinda Dillon, despite the fact that I often confuse her with either Kate Capshaw or Kim Basinger. As the cautious parents of the kid who wants a BB gun, they are pretty good, but as the dysfunctional husband and wife who display a ridiculous leg lamp in the front window of their home during the holidays, I find them wanting. Who in their right mind would ever let that happen? As for the nominal focus point of the story—Ralphie, the nerdy kid with fantasies that made me wonder if the kid didn’t have a psychiatric problem or some sort, played by Peter Billingsley—I couldn’t care less.

The musical version plays out much the same as the film. Chris Carsten plays Jean Shepherd, the radio personality who penned the book that both productions would be based on. He serves the same purpose as the real Jean did in the film as narrator, but here he’s on stage to interject as needed. Mrs. Parker, credited as merely “Mother” in the less-specific stage show, was played by Susannah Jones, and she was delightful with a fine singing voice. Christopher Swan, as The Old Man, was much too “theatrical” for me. Darren McGavin had a deeper, resonant voice with a quick wit and plenty of bravado. Swan would be fine in just about anything else you could name but it felt forced here, as if he really wanted to be in Mamma Mia instead. The role of Ralphie is played by Evan Gray and Colton Maurer, who alternate shows. My show featured Maurer, and while he plays the nerd part well enough he didn’t really seem to have a particularly good singing voice. (I know, I know, how dare I criticize a youngster for not sounding like a smooth twenty-something tenor? It’s a musical, folks. Singing should be the primary requirement.) He sang either low and slow, or loud and slightly higher, yet never as high as the veteran Chris Carsten, playing his older self, talked. It was like puberty was playing “Benjamin Buttons” with this pair. To make it worse in terms of suspending my disbelief, the Playbill features Peter Billingsley’s blonde mug (or a kid who really resembles the former child actor) on the cover, but Colton Maurer’s hair is much darker. I know that seems nitpicky, but how would you like to see Wicked with Elphaba running around on stage with red skin rather than being the green-hued hag we all know and love? If you’re creating an original show (remember when musicals weren’t always former Hollywood blockbusters?), do what you want. If you’re working from source material that everyone is familiar with, I think you should honor that as much as possible. The other kids in the show did fine, with Cal Alexander playing Ralphie’s little brother Randy to a tee, Christian Dell’Edera as Flick trying to sing with his tongue stuck to a flagpole was one of the best moments of the show, and everyone in the tap dance number during “Sticky Situation” leading off the second act receiving well-deserved and hearty applause.

The staging of a theatre show is something that has interested me more and more recently. A cutaway two story house showed the never-ending saga of suburbia as The Old Man wrestled with his flaky furnace, Mother tricked Randy into eating like a pig to get him to eat at all, and Ralphie tried to push the Red Rider rifle (which always makes me think of Sammy Hagar) in subtle or obvious ways, but never quite so obvious as that damned stupid lamp standing as a testament to The Old Man’s intellect and an attack on my own. The famous “Fudge!” scene where Ralphie tried to help his Old Man change a flat and didn’t really say “fudge” at all, took place on a mostly empty set, with just a partial car frame and actors playing trees gliding from the front of the stage to the read to give the impression of movement. The school, Higbee’s department store and the colossal slide of Santa Claus were all represented as well. The sets were functional and looked nice, but for some reason everything looked undersized to me. There seemed to be an odd amount of space over the proceedings, which in turn made everyone and everything feel smaller. That was odd to me sitting seven rows back. I’d always assumed that the stage venerable old playhouse on Grand Boulevard was “small” by modern standards, but perhaps it’s just the opposite? I guess it’s time I schedule a tour! Costuming was perfect but the songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul just didn’t seem to grab me. I was sick of “It All Comes Down To Christmas” pretty fast—I’m no expert, but is it really a good idea to follow a number with its own reprise?

Now that I’m reflecting on it, it’s really all a mixed bag for me. I still dislike the film immensely despite Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon. I still have no use for Ralphie, no matter who plays the part. The theatrical story plays out essentially the same way, from the desire for that gun to the racist portrayal of the Chinese restaurant owner trying to sing “Deck the Halls” with broken English. I have often wondered if the people who criticize Bugs Bunny for its WWII-era racism that ultimately helped push the cartoon off of television entirely don’t laugh their hypocritical asses off at that scene every year when TBS runs that stupid movie for 24 hours. I’ll never know for sure, but I’d wager a few “enlightened” people do get a good laugh at the “Fa-ra-ra-ra-ra,” bit. That said, A Christmas Story: The Musical, did what I needed it to do, which was give these stereotypical characters a little more fleshing out through song. That’s exactly what the High Fidelity musical did so well and what Dirty Dancing failed so badly at earlier this season. On the whole, it was a more enjoyable viewing than that movie will ever be for me. Obviously I'm in the minority, if not alone, in my disdain for the film, so if you're one of those folks who still laugh at every joke and still wince when Raphie nearly does succed in shooting his eye out, you'll probably love the musical just as much. 

Frankly, it could have been worse. It could have been The Nutcracker.

A Christmas Story: The Musical runs December 16, 2014 to January 4, 2015 at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. Check out www.fabulousfox.com for more information, show times and ticket prices.   

2.5 / 5.0