OREM — For the third year in a row, SCERA has mounted a production of A Christmas Story: The Musical, which makes it officially qualify as a tradition. This year’s production of A Christmas Story at the SCERA is a glorious evening on stage that is packed with non-stop holiday joy.
The musical version of A Christmas Story sticks closely to the plot of the classic 1983 film. Nine-year-old Ralphie Parker wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. But everyone he asks — Santa, his parents, teacher — responds the same way: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” As I have stated before when reviewing the show, the script (by Joseph Robinette) offers little that is new, and the film sets a high bar for stage productions to meet. But the SCERA’s production shows how much a talented cast and artistic team can elevate a show and transcend its limits. Under director Kurt Elison, A Christmas Story bubbles with energy and evokes the nostalgia and charm of the film without being a shallow imitation.
Any search for mistakes in Kurt Elison’s directing will come up empty-handed. Every scene is engaging because Kurt Elison knows how to get his actors to naturally push the humor and heart of A Christmas Story. I especially loved how real the Parker family felt. In car rides together or at the dinner table, the family interactions were genuine and based in love, even as the actors conveyed the ups and downs of day-to-day family life. Kurt Elison can also let the show get zany when it needs to. The department store scene was a hysterical juxtaposition, as the peppy tune of “Up on Santa’s Lap” was paired with the cynical and twisted image of tired, unenthusiastic department store workers (including an ill-tempered Santa played hilariously by Garrett Smit).
Tate McBeth stars as Ralphie Parker (reprising the role he played last year), and it is impressive to see a young actor able who seems to effortlessly carry the show on his shoulders. McBeth nearly bursts with want for the BB gun, and I love how smoothly he could move his character from reality to fantasy and back. His energy in “It All Comes Down to Christmas” and “Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana” is infectious and ensured that the musical started and ended with gusto. And the fraternal relationship that Ralphie had with Randy (played by Porter McCormick) was so believable that I was surprised to see in the program that the two actors are not actually brothers.
As The Old Man (Ralphie’s father, Frank), Mark Buffington is a consummate song-and-dance man, and he is dazzling as the star of “A Major Award” (when Frank celebrates his new leg lamp) and “The Genius on Cleveland Street.” Buffington’s acting is delightful as well; his giddy reaction to the leg lamp and outrage at the broken furnace were some of the best acting moments of the night. Buffington also had a nice affection for his stage wife, played by Celeste Harris (called only “Mother” in the script). Harris has the only complex female role in the play, and she was magnificent in it. Her stoic commitment to “What a Mother Does” and tender way she comforted her children was so familiar that my 8-year-old son commented that Harris seemed like a real mother. Harris knows that nuance in acting is important, even in a big, flashy musical, and the way she subtlety showed Mother’s intelligence (helping Frank with the crossword, or navigating her husband’s temperament) was pleasing.
The talent in the cast of A Christmas Story may start with the leading actors, but it extends all the way to the youngest members of the chorus. Indeed, the cast includes more than 20 children in supporting and ensemble roles, and every one impresses. Whether tap dancing in “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” singing their heart out in “When You’re a Wimp,” or reacting to the creepy Santa, the children in A Christmas Story were a strength of the production. Child actors in a community production are not supposed to be this good.
What’s not to love about Jeanna Cunningham‘s choreography? The lengthy dance sequences were packed with a series of surprises, especially in “The Genius on Cleveland Street,” “Ralphie to the Rescue!,” and “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.” It has been a long time since I have seen so much dancing superbly executed in an amateur show. But I was most awed by Emily Hawkes‘s music direction. The harmonies of “It All Comes Down to Christmas,” “A Major Award,” and “A Christmas Story” were stirring. The group numbers had that bright Broadway sound, and the diction was crisp throughout. Under Hawkes’s supervision, the cast makes the score (with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) sound much better than it really is.
It is important to mention the lighting design by Chase Elison, which creates a contrast for the fantasy scenes by saturating them in deep colors upstage. The lighting also accentuates the set pieces (designed by Zippy Hellewell) nicely and gives the set a warm, cozy feeling (especially in the house). Hellewell also had an impressive set for the department store. The costumes (designed by Deborah Bowman) were the most important element for establishing the 1930s time period of the play, and the glitz of the fantasy sequences was a welcomed treat.
The production of A Christmas Story at the SCERA is so outstanding that I feel compelled to give the show a rave — even though I do not care for the script or score. But anything less than full-throated praise would be dishonest. Compared to other theatrical Christmas traditions, producing A Christmas Story is an ambitious undertaking. But by aiming high and assembling a first-rate team of creative staff and actors, the SCERA has created a must-see show that deserves a major award.