OREM — Move over, Clara. Make room, Mr. Scrooge. The new kid in town may be here to stay.
And his name is Ralphie.
A Christmas Story: The Musical (music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Joseph Robinette), staged for a second season at the SCERA Center for the Arts, may be poised to take a place along side The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol as a traditional family yuletide outing. Certainly the excellence of the production now playing in Orem through December 18 this year makes braving the cold to attend well worth it.
The musical is, of course, based on the 1983 cult classic film A Christmas Story (based itself on Jean Shepherd’s autobiographical novel, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash). The tale follows the exploits of young Ralphie as he schemes to convince his mother to give him the perfect Christmas gift: a BB gun. Not just any BB gun, but an, “official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle,” which he longs for with the intensity of a kid of my generation might for a working lightsaber and for the same reason: to make himself the hero of his imagination. Unfortunately for him, all the grown ups in this 1940’s Midwestern town seem to believe that if he had the gun he’d, “put his eye out.”
At the SCERA, Ralphie is played by Tate McBeth with winning confidence. He is backed up by a uniformly strong cast, leads, and ensemble alike. A few favorites of mine include little Gemma Standers (Grover Dill), who nearly steals scenes with her cockiness and ominous laugh, and Lizzy Sherman as Miss Shields, a teacher equally at home intimidating a class full of elementary students and belting out a cabaret-style showstopper. Ed Eyestone plays narrator/Ralphie’s inner voice with engaging boyish enthusiasm.
What sets this musical apart from other Christmas musicals such as Elf and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is the lack of garish cartoon fantasy. A Christmas Story revolves around a real family with everyday recognizable struggles. Mark Buffington, as the excitable father, and Lisa Blaser, as the poignantly responsible mother, are completely believable, funny, and relatable.
Some one needs to invent a term for community theater that performs like professional theater, because whatever that word is, this SCERA production team demonstrates it. Director Delayne Bluth Dayton moves the show along with perfect pacing. Lindsay Folkman’s choreography both entertains and forwards the plot. Costume Designer Kelsey Seaver has embodied the time period coherently in everything from coats to cabaret dresses, kid’s pajamas to dancing “elf” suits, and even a memorable lamp-shade-shaped skirt.
That all being said, I have to admit I have some reservations about the play. Not so much about the solid production, except that the Christmas gift opening scene towards which all the story built up to seemed anticlimactic, the acting a little stale. My uneasiness was with the plot’s glorification of firearms and the idea of gifting guns of any sort to children, jarring in a time of mass school shootings. I flinched every time a stage gun was pointed directly at the audience, which happened frequently. I was bothered by gender rolls portrayed, especially that of the mother who hides her intelligence and, “hadn’t had a hot meal in 15 years,” as she serves her husband and sons second and third helpings of dinner. Let’s not even start on lack of diversity…
I had to remind myself that the story is at heart a period piece seen through a haze of sweet nostalgia. It consists of memories of a boyhood when love was taken for granted, his parents fixed all problems and forgave his mistakes, a time when his world, though imperfect, seemed innocent and safe. Deep down, doesn’t everyone long for that?