By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
There are apparently some people who have never seen the 1983 MGM Christmas classic “A Christmas Story” on TV. Regularly shown since the late 1980s on a 24-hour bender by Ted Turner, there are 12 opportunities every year from Christmas Eve night to Christmas night to see the very funny, albeit quirky story set in fictional Holman, Indiana in the late 1930s.
Knowing the story about a young boy’s search for the perfect Christmas gift – a Red Ryder BB air rifle – is not required, but it does help in appreciating what may seem like an outlandish tale of the glory of Christmas as seen through the eyes of a young child.
The story was actually the brainchild of Jean Shepherd, who served as the narrator for the film, and whose short story “In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash” was the basis for the film’s screenplay written by Shepherd, scriptwriter Leigh Brown and director Bob Clark.
Oftentimes, Shepherd would make witty or pithy comments that were outwardly funny because they contained elements of truth. “My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium, a master.” His colorful phrasing helped to endear the film to people who saw the film as a sneak peek back into an innocent time in Middle America before a series of wars and conflicts made the term “peace on earth and goodwill to all men” quite implausible.
Beginning with a 2010 production at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, the Parker family consisting of Ralphie, Randy, mother and “the old man” were lovingly brought to the stage in a musical adaptation penned by Joseph Robinette with music and lyrics by the blossoming musical team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Later iterations included a national tour and several out-of-town tryouts before opening in November of 2012 on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for a limited, six-week run. The following year, the production returned to New York, this time opening at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden for a four-week run.
Since 2014, a national tour based on the original Broadway production, has been making its way across the country with the Saenger Theater as its designated holiday stop this year. In this production, the narrator-Jean Shepherd character pops up in various scenes to fully document the remembrances of the Parker family with him channeling as Ralphie. The jovial nature of the character is perfectly played by Chris Carsten as a man who reflects with wisdom and honesty about what was important in the life of a child of that period.
Alternating in the role of Ralphie are Tommy Druhan and Ian Shaw, assigned the heavy lifting in the work, which requires talent and a huge dose of connectivity to the audience. Shaw has played the role last year on tour, while Druhan is new to playing Ralphie. The role requires the character to be on stage during most of the scenes and thus requires a great deal of nuance and sensitivity.
Beginning with the theme for the show “It All Comes Down to Christmas,” which repeats throughout the musical as a leitmotif, Ralphie leads the cast in singing about the spirit of the season. His single-minded focus is on the air-powered BB rifle and how he can get “Santa” to deliver it to him on Christmas Day.
As the countdown commences, he continues to lead the cast in two major songs “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun” and “Ralphie to the Rescue!,” a colorful piece in which he imagines himself a hero shooting villains and rescuing ladies along the way.
Playing the role of “the old man,” Frank Parker, is Christopher Swan, who has enjoyed a long history with playing the man who wrestles with furnaces on the fritz and whose colorful phrases with profanity have already been duly noted. Wanting some acknowledgment that he is “the genius on Cleveland (Street),” the old man desires to win a prize so that others will give him the credit he feels he is due.
When he wins a major prize for a sweepstakes he has entered, he is overwhelmed with the possibilities, which leads to a major dance break in “A Major Award.” Those who have never seen the film will take a bit to understand the significance of the object of his desire, while those who are familiar with the film, are sure to jump right in and applaud the outrageous choreography, props and set design to support the song.
Swan plays the role of the father with equal amounts of puerility and sagacity. He is both a kid at heart and a father who is trying his best to set a proper role model for his two boys and be a good provider to his wife.
Speaking of the wife and mother, Briana Gantsweg plays her role with warmth and tenderness, being firm when a mother needs to be with her sons and supportive when her overwrought husband feels the need to exercise his superiority over the house furnace or show his mastery and efficiency in changing a flat tire. Her best moment, though, is in Act Two’s “Just Like That,” a tender moment suggesting things are never as bad as they seem. It has a measure of the raw feeling of assurance found in the exchange of mother to son that came year later in Paskek and Paul’s “So Little, So Big” from Dear Evan Hansen.
Deep within its book, A Christmas Story is all about the dynamics of a typical family unit, the responsibilities of father and mother and the expectations of the children. Having Jean Shepherd as the narrator brings the delight and sheer joy of the Christmas holiday that arise above cheap commercialism in seeing it through the eyes of a child.
The supporting cast all do their part to add to the enjoyment of the musical’s highly unusual numbers. With such a large number of child actors within the story the book requires them to not only be comfortable and believable with their characters, but also to possess the necessary and demanding skills to sing well.
In Act Two’s “You’ll Shoot Your Eyes Out,” the kids actually break out into tap along with Lauren Kent, who plays their schoolteacher, Miss Shields. Other opportunities to see the kids shine are evident in “Up on Santa’s Lap” that takes place at Higbee’s Department Store along with Santa (Daniel Mark Smith) and his elves (Erica Jane Hughes and Alec Talbott) as well as in “Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana” with Randy (William Colin) and Ralphie as they await the arrival of Santa Claus.
The choreography by Warren Carlyle is fast-moving and fantastic in so many ways, establishing the dancing as an important part of director Matt Lenz’s vision, which he based upon that of original Broadway director John Rando. The scenic design (Walt Spangler), costume design (Elizabeth hope Clancy) and lighting designs (Howell Binkley) are all based on the original Broadway production too.
Ultimately, one does not have to be familiar with the movie to appreciate A Christmas Story as a separate vehicle. It is enjoyable family fare that maintains the charm of the original and keeps intact many of the endearing features of the film that have made it a holiday classic and, therefore, succeeds on many levels.
It took five years for the national tour of A Christmas Story to make it to New Orleans. Perhaps it will make a return visit here sooner than that. We might like that better than an official Red Ryder…well you know….
A Christmas Story: The Musical finishes its run at the Saenger Theater, 1111 Canal Street in New Orleans on Sunday, December 22. Tickets are still available through Ticketmaster or at the Saenger Theater box office in person or over the phone at 504-525-1052.