SALT LAKE CITY — In Broadway’s continuing effort to turn all intellectual properties into family musicals, A Christmas Story, the Musical premiered in the Big Apple in 2012. The show was based on a 1983 film so popular that television stations broadcast it for 24 hours straight during the holidays.
While I’m surprised it was nominated for a Tony for best musical, the show has enough going for it to disqualify it as a shallow cash grab, which is a relief. The Broadway Across America production currently playing at Eccles Theater in Salt Lake offers an evening of amiable entertainment. There are smiles and laughs to be had, although not as many as the source material.
The playwrights (book by Joseph Robinette and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) have added more heart and color to characters, which include a Midwestern family consisting of sons Ralphie and Randy (Ian Shaw and William Colin) and their nameless parents, played by Briana Gantsweg and Christopher Swan.
The plot, as if you didn’t know, centers on nine-year -old Ralphie’s fervent desire to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. How else could he protect his family, friends, and community from the robbers and outlaws that his favorite comics convince him must be around every corner? Unfortunately, the adults in his life don’t exactly see eye-to-eye with him on the matter.
Each famous scene and classic line from the movie is magnified to tremendous heights in this production. The highlight of all of this show is the infamous leg lamp, one of cinema’s greatest creations. Not only does the fragile award get an enormous song and dance number, but it’s also the best number in the musical. The other choices of musical numbers won’t surprise to anyone familiar with the source material, including, “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun,” “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” and “Up on Santa’s Lap.” Like a 40-year old classic rock band, this show knows to play the hits. It goes without saying that during the course of the evening, frozen flagpoles will be licked, red soap will be sucked. and pink bunny suits will be worn.
Fortunately, there is new material on stage as well. Several sentimental numbers give appreciated heart to the musical and let characters explore their personality and desires. The mother is an effective and generally happy housewife who wants what’s best for her family but worries that life is passing so fast. The dad, who is much dimmer in this version to the point of fulfilling the buffoon father stereotype, wants some respect in the neighborhood. And Ralphie wants… well, you already know.
The show, which was directed by Matt Lenz, is framed as a radio play, which gives reason for the narrator to appear and deliver some of the movie’s unforgettable context. Chris Carsten nailed the semi-folksy Midwestern quality of the narrator and was a rock-solid presence throughout the evening.
The child actors, of which there are many, were great little actors. Each of their line delivery and singing was great. However, they do have a way to grow as far as movement goes. There were lots of slow, awkward, and telegraphed movements across the board. But the kids did hit their marks in the end.
The adult actors did what professional Broadway Across America actors do: basically be perfect. The only note I can think of was Swan’s indeterminable cursing. It’s part of the joke (and the PG rating) that the dad’s frequent swearing tirades are nothing but strung together gibberish, but the vocal exclamations were so incoherent that I often was confused about what the dad was supposed to be vocalizing at all. Maybe some more consonants would help?
Ralphie did seem a couple years too old and several inches too tall (he was almost eye to eye with his mom), but it is a beefy leading role in a national tour, and it’s probably wrong to fault casting director Alison Franck. Shaw is marvelous in the role. He is magnetic in his adorable, nerdy earnestness and nailed every scene and big song of the night, including the lengthy Western hoe down dream sequence, “Ralphie to the Rescue.”
Just as good, if not better, was Colin as Randy. Colin played a tremendous little brother, and Colin’s delivery was perfect all night. I particularly enjoyed the character’s fondness of residing in a cabinet. Of all the characters, Swan played The Old Man closest to the original film, looking, sounding, and expressing a lot like Darren McGavin. Gantsweg was matriarchal and motherly in the role with the biggest heart, even if the playwrights unfortunately tweaked the great “little piggy” scene toward humor.
The stage is framed by concentric circles to make it appear like a snow globe that gives a feeling of a classic Christmas memory. The show was choreographed by Warren Carlyle, whose greatest triumph was the way dancers used leg lamps to can-can in the number, “Major Award.” This number was the best part of the whole show, so well done.
For the tech, it’s unfair to judge a production where thousands of things go right by a handful that go wrong, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there were at least four instances of mics being turned on after actors had started speaking. There was also an awkward, blown scrim raise that interrupted actor movement.
I was also surprised that the film’s racially questionable parts made it into the musical, including a heavily accented and poorly acclimated Chinese waiter impersonating Bing Crosby and a Randy as a full-on feather-wearing, “How, white man” Indian.
All in all, A Christmas Story, the Musical offers a fun and warm evening of family fun. While I’d personally prefer the film, it’s an enjoyable night out for people unfamiliar with the movie or who can’t get enough of it. It’s not quite worthy of a major award, but it makes for an enjoyable Christmas evening.