9:20 AM CST, December 15, 2011
Toward the end of "A Christmas Story, The Musical" you hear a small catch in the throat of the fine actor Gene Weygandt, who plays Jean Shepherd, the raconteur who gave the American Christmas its Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun. You immediately get what he's saying without actually saying: these memories of an imperfect, and thus perfect, Northwest Indiana lower-middle-class childhood of the 1940s are receding. The dad who struggled to come up with six bucks for a battery for the Olds; the mom who knew how to make any kid eat: These parents are now as dead as the narrator's 9-year-old self, when happiness was just the chance to shoot your eye out.
And it's that unexpected sense of the fragility of the childhood Christmas — after all, we all only experience a handful and then they vanish — that makes this new musical far more moving and satisfying than most of the audience was expecting and far better than most of the Christmas entertainments that pop up in theaters to celebrate brands and personalities, rather than the American family, struggling then and now.
It's true that "A Christmas Story, The Musical" tracks the famous 1983 movie closely — if it did not, most of the audience would demand refunds — and was clearly determined to honor the movie's numerous quirks and not merely drown everything in seasonal sentiment. But if you just want to relive those amusing scenes of frozen tongues et al., then TBS has an "A Christmas Story" marathon coming up in a week. The producers of this musical clearly understood they had to offer a deeper emotional experience, more of a celebration of an ordinary family filled with eccentrics, struggling for money but lucky in love. And that's what is achieved in a show that leaves you not just with a familiar backdrop narrative to Christmas, but a tribute to what parents do for their children, and what their children do for them.
Much of that flows from a little clutch of really lovely ballads from the very promising songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who save their best stuff not for Ralphie (although his "Counting Down to Christmas" is fun) but his mother. As beautifully played by Rachel Bay Jones — an actress who offers just a hint of a woman at once deeply loving and undeniably strange — sweet songs like "What a Mother Does" are likely to catch plenty of throats, especially if a mother is gone. It would have been easier, perhaps, to satirize the 1940s mother. But Jones offers a fuller portrait, not without longing, but seeming to capture the truth that happiness is best defined by how content we are within that which is available.
In terms of production values, this is a Broadway-caliber show, on the modest end. The cast is both experienced and stellar: Karen Mason, no less, is in the acting ensemble, playing the schoolteacher. The visual watchword was clearly to paint a picture of Ralphie's (and Shepherd's) point of view, and thus Walt Spangler's far-from-predictable set is like a snowy dreamscape with a modest home perched inside and other shadows coming and going. The framing device is Shepherd doing one of his radio broadcasts, replete with a foley artist whose effects melt very nicely into the memories and who, with a few barks, also takes care of the need for the turkey-stealing dogs from the hillbilly house next door.
The book by Joseph Robinette is hardly full of surprises, but it picks its dialogue deftly, walking wisely between the need to hit expectations and find broader, more theatrical themes. To the credit of these writers, and the director, John Rando, the show often veers from expectations. When poor Flick gets his tongue frozen to that pole, you expect him to sing. But Ralphie is the one who warbles with horror, only for Flick to get a toungueless verse just when you think the kid has been turned into a mute. Similarly, the show makes good use of Ralphie's fantasies, including a kid-friendly cowboy number called "Ralphie to the Rescue," wherein the 9-year-old hero of his own mind saves sundry authority figures in distress. The best song of the night, though, is "Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana," wherein the kids' wait for a Hoosier Santa, surely now flying up from around Evansville, being as that one is the only one for which they actually have a use.
Clarke Hallum, who plays Ralphie, wisely offers a very different take from Peter Billingsley, whose demeanor was inherently cinematic. Hallum's great strength is his voice — a clear and powerful instrument that allows him to pick perfect notes out of the sky like little pellets. He's supported by a bevy of decent, likable kids (although mercifully not so programmed that you can't believe they ever walked the streets of Hammond) and clutch of character actors, mostly from Chicago, such as Adam Pelty (who plays the self-loathing Santa) and George Andrew Wolff. As Ralphie's Old Man, John Bolton captures the same broadness you can see in the movie. For a while it feels like his work is not of a piece with the others, but by the second act, the always-funny Bolton finds more of his guy's poignant key: how his love for his family will always have to fight with his own insecurities, just like most married men. And he is, after all, seen here only as his son remembers him.
That wise rule is followed like a mantra. There's no reason why "A Christmas Story" should not be on Broadway next season, especially if the capable Warren Carlyle beefs up the dance a little. Since he was initially the director, I suspect Carlyle came up with much of the unpretentious movement vocabulary. But there's a need for more. I was also pulled out of the show by the sudden, Ralphie-fueled appearance of Mason's Miss Shields as a Wicked Witch and the kids, looking uncomfortable in this moment alone, as flying monkeys. Mason sings the stuffing out the number, but we don't all need to be suddenly thinking of "Wicked." "A Christmas Story" is all about terra firma, terra ordinary, a world almost gone, were it not for our need to seek such stories out at Christmas, when all we need is the people we love. And a gun.
When: Through Dec. 30
Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.
Tickets: $35-$79 at 800-745-3000 and ticketmaster.com
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