Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
A Christmas Story, The Musical - More Heart and Less Glitz
A Christmas Story is derived from "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," a book of short stories by Jean Shepherd. Shepherd was an unparalleled, beloved radio storyteller. He excelled in weaving wryly comic, semi-autobiographical stories of small town America. His halcyon years began in 1956 when he launched twenty-two years of nightly broadcasts on WOR radio in New York. The 1983 screenplay, co-authored by Shepherd, features extensive narration which he delivers off screen as the adult voice of the 10-year-old protagonist Ralphie. On stage, the narrating Shepherd/adult Ralphie (portrayed by Ted Koch) is physically present throughout.
The anecdotal "Story" is set in a small Indiana backwater city on the south shore of Lake Michigan in December, 1940. The major narrative thread concerns Ralphie's efforts to get his parents to buy him a desperately wanted Red Ryder Carbine Action BB gun for Christmas. His efforts repeatedly draw the riposte, "you'll shoot your eye out!" from one and all. Another thread concerns his father's passion for a tasteless novelty table lamp in the shape of a female leg adorned in a fishnet stocking which Ralphie's mother despises. The lamp gives "The Old Man" pride because he won it with his answers in an entry to a media contest. Overriding in prominence these and several other anecdotal happenings is the underlying evolution of the relationship between Ralphie and his parents, along with Ralphie's emerging understanding of them. This forms the heart of A Christmas Story and provides its greatest satisfaction.
Hewing closely to the screenplay by Shepherd, Leigh Brown, and Bob Clark, book writer Joseph Robinette has captured the voice of Shepherdits warmth, sentiment, insight, and, most importantly, his wry, rueful humor. While Ralphie's father, at least in performance, is not as disturbingly and scarily out of control as he was in the hands of Darren McGavin in the movie, he is certainly no Sunday picnic. Given how judgmental society has become in its view of parental behaviors, the movie's ultimate exculpation of "The Old Man" would likely be off-putting to many of today's viewers.
Director Brandon Ivie performs wonders by tamping down the insistent, over the top, knock 'em dead musical production numbers of the Broadway production. Peripheral to the main business at hand, they smothered this musical's central virtues. Some of these production numbers were adapted from daydreams of Ralphie; all were insistently overblown. Universally, the highest praise for the Broadway production was reserved for a tap dance number performed by Luke Spring, a very talented nine-year-old dancer, which was the centerpiece of an inexplicable 1930s Kid Gangster Fantasy production number. The problem is, the razzle-dazzle overwhelmed the gentle, rueful story. Fortunately, this production knows not to sacrifice its overall impact for a momentary high. (This is not a knock on Spring who someday you may boast about having seen way back when.)
Choreographer Mara Newbery Greer provides modest, peppy choreography suitable to the property, the production and the youngsters augmenting the large ensemble.
While his voice is not a match for that of the real Shepherd, Ted Koch (unlike the Broadway original) gives full flavor to "Shep" by fully capturing all of his inflections and rhythms. This is not faint praise. Chris Hoch brings considerable dimension to the disappointed and disappointing Old Man. Elena Shaddow is moving as the shopworn Mother struggling to hold her family together and provide a proper home for her children. Shaddow gets full value from the wise, moving, and lovely ballad "Just Move On." Colton Maurer, well cast as Ralphie, hits all his marks nicely.
The music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are generally lively and serviceable. "Ralphie to the Rescue" with its 1940s western pop song motif is a cut above. Walt Spangler's flexible turntable set does a terrific job of giving full scope to the main setting, the Parker family home.
A Christmas Story, The Musical is enjoyable holiday entertainment for the entire family. Moreover, there is more substance for all to chew on than one could have dare hoped to expect.
A Christmas Story, The Musical continues performances through January 3, 2016 (Evening: Wednesday - Sunday 7 pm (except 12/24, 12/25, 12/31, 1/3)/ Matinees. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm -(additional performances: Eves: 7 pm - Tuesday 12/22, 12/29/ Mats 1:30 pm - Tuesday 12/29; Wednesday 12/23, 12/30) at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.