Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
New stage versions of Christmas and holiday musicals have become regular seasonal occurrences for many of the large touring venues across the country. Cincinnati audiences have already seen the likes of White Christmas, Elf, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, so it's not a surprise that A Christmas Story The Musical, another very solid show, is currently playing at the Aronoff Center. This excellently performed and presented mounting showcases a double dose of nostalgia that is certain to delight most audiences.
Following the 1983 film closely, A Christmas Story The Musical is the tale of young Ralphie Parker in 1940s Indiana as he tries to find a way to get a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB gun for Christmas. The movie is now a cult classic and plays on TV almost constantly during parts of December. Joseph Robinette has provided the book for the musical, adapting it faithfully from the movie written by Jean Shepherd (based on his novel and short stories), Leigh Brown, and Bob Clark. Nearly all of the zany antics of the screen version, including the leg lamp and pink bunny outfit, are present. On stage, the action is somewhat episodic, but the humor of the story and folksy narration, provided by the now visible Jean Shepherd as part of his radio broadcast, come through effectively.
Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, Dogfight) start out the show with a snappy and effective opening number in "It All Comes Down to Christmas." From song titles such as "A Major Award", "Sticky Situation" (chronicling the tongue on the flag pole incident), and "Up On Santa's Lap", you can see that they have musicalized many of the movie's classic scenes. This adaptation also has a number of well-suited fantasy moments in songs such as "Ralphie to the Rescue," in which he dreams of the heroics he can do with his new BB gun, and "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out," an extravagant tap dance number for his teacher Miss Shields and the child ensemble. Ralphie's parents are each given first-rate songs to provide additional insight to their characters. The only criticism of the score is that they songs rarely advance the plot.
This non-Equity touring production is a close approximation of the Broadway one that appeared in New York in 2012. Matt Lenz has duplicated much of Broadway director John Rando's work, which sparkles with charm, just the right level of sentimentality, and humor. One number, "When You're a Wimp," is too presentational in style, but it is otherwise a solid mounting of the material. Warren Carlyle's choreography is fun and varied, and at its best in the aforementioned "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out"with all of the child performers in the cast getting to show off wonderful tap skills. Andrew Smithson leads a splendid sounding 11-piece orchestra.
As Ralphie, Tristan Klaphake (who shares the role with Edward Turner) is vocally excellent, and delivers a strong mix of earnest excitement and dry desperation in his characterization. Paul Nobrega is nearly perfect as The Old Man, skillfully spewing forth the gibberish placeholders for profanity and embodying the cantankerousness and cluelessness of the character to delightful results. He is a fine singer as well, giving some showbiz pizzazz to the jaunty "The Genius on Cleveland Street" and other numbers. Sara Zoe Budnik brings out the practical, matter-of-fact nature of Ralphie's mother, but also displays the character's tender side through her well-performed songs "What a Mother Does" and "Just Like That." Evan Christy gets the needed laughs as younger brother Randy, and Angelica Richie dances up a storm as Miss Shields. Chris Carsten has performed the role of narrator Jean Shepard on tour for four seasons now, and brings warmth and homespun storytelling to the role. The adult and child ensembles provide praiseworthy support with many showy moments.
The stage is framed by rounded proscenium arches which, at times when combined with some projections, showcase the action as inside a snow globequite the brilliant effect. The sets by Walt Spangler (recreated on tour by Michael Carnahan) feature a detailed two-story house, along with all of the copious other locales, and all are beautifully rendered. The lighting by Howell Binkley (recreated by Charlie Morrison) is appropriate and includes some well-suited effects for the fantasy scenes, though there were some execution issues on opening night. Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costumes (here supplied by Liz Zinni and Michael McDonald) are period appropriate, fun, and reminiscent of the film outfits.
A Christmas Story is quite the beloved film, and theatergoers will be delighted to see it come alive on stage in this musical version. There truly is a double dose of nostalgiaone for the simpler and more innocent times conveyed the story, and the other for the memories we have of laughing at the movie year after year (including those times we channel surf and stop on the movie to see our favorite scene). The national tour brings the familiar story, a solid score, fun dances, a strong cast, beautiful designs, and worthwhile direction together.
A Christmas Story continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through December 10, 2017. Visit achristmasstoryontour.com or call 800-294-1816 for ticket information and more information on the tour.