SALT LAKE — I, like many Americans, grew up watching the iconic Bob Clark film A Christmas Story every year. I remember doodling little Ralphies and Red Ryder BB Guns on my notes and assignments in high school, desperate for Christmas Vacation to start! Seeing the musical production at Pioneer Theatre Company now as an adult has opened my eyes even more to why this timeless story is so relatable and endearing to so many of us.
Based on the hilarious book by Joseph Robinette, A Christmas Story, The Musical is an energetic, whimsical tale that follows the now adult Ralphie telling the story of one specific Christmas from his childhood on his radio show. With music and lyrics by the acclaimed Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, (Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land, etc.) you can be sure this musical will have amusing, engaging music for the whole family to enjoy. Right from the beginning, as adult Ralphie chuckles and looks around the stage the tableaus of a boy stuck to a flagpole and a kid in a pink bunny costume, you know that this production will be a delightful ode to the beloved film.
Directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company’s A Christmas Story, The Musical is a charming delight with perfect technical work and marvelous energy. The set, innovatively designed by James Noone, is filled with childlike stimulus and magical grandeur. The whole stage is set to look like it’s in a snow globe, with curving, snowy homes as the backdrop surrounded by a white fluffy frame. A white stencil cut out of a classic 1940’s home covered in snow floats above the entire set, reminding us that the familial events occurring on stage probably mirror holidays of many of those seated in the audience. Accompanied by a fantastic and grand live orchestra conducted by Helen Gregory, the riveting music provides a glorious sense of importance and adventure that only a child could imagine.
Speaking of children, Mack Boyer as Ralphie gives the most incredible vocal performance from a child that I have ever seen. Boyer leads the show with never-ending stamina and contagious excitement, carrying the heavy load of demanding musical numbers with ease and jaw-dropping excellence. Not only a phenomenal singer, Boyer also provides some of the best acting in the production, the actor’s tense hands and grounded stance realistically portraying just how genuinely critical it is that Ralphie gets his Christmas wish – a Red Ryder BB Gun. Don Noble as older Ralphie, the story’s narrator, immediately invites us in with his impeccable story telling skills, drawing us in with a soft voice and a homey, comforting aura. Due to his performance, it felt like we were in a small living room on a cozy night by the fire, listening to dad tell us stories. When Noble spoke about the importance of the gift that Ralphie’s dad gave him at the end of the production, you could hear the tenderness in his voice. Not only did I believe that the gift meant so much to Ralphie, but that remembering his dad was even more precious. Boyer and Noble are an unstoppable team in telling this classic, nostalgic tale.
Another standout is EJ Zimmerman as Miss Shields. Zimmerman is incredibly present and vivacious throughout, shooting each of Miss Shields’s words threateningly at her students like a BB gun, and then transitioning to Ralphie’s adoring imaginary version of a teacher with ease and boisterous hilarity, especially in her voice and dramatically wonderful physicality. While clearly incredibly talented, Danny Bernardy’s portrayal of The Old Man (Ralphie’s father) seemed to be the only one who’s energy did not quite match that required of the huge space. While Bernardy’s performance was certainly believable, I would have loved to see him energize and animate his performance even more, especially when the character is angry or truly passionate and excited about winning his “major award.”
The only oddity in the performance was the decision to have understudy Stephanie Maloney sing for actress Stacie Bono (who played Mother) while she was still onstage. The director of the company made a big deal about announcing this adjustment at the beginning of the production, seeming to milk the comedy of their worrisome appearance before the show started, and it was hard to focus on anything else while Bono was onstage. I just found myself only focusing on her lips, curious to see how well she would stay in sync with Maloney’s hidden yet glorious voice. While I’m sure the theater company had their reasons for not just sending the understudy out to perform, the choice was definitely distracting and pulled me out of the theatrical illusion. I also found myself wishing that the
creative team had made a little bit more of a commentary about the sexist realities of the forties, as opposed to just showing us a slice of life from back then. I’m sure it was probably humorous to those who grew up in that time, but I think some sort of commentary, whether in the staging or acting, on why those remarks are wrong would have been appreciated.
A Christmas Story, The Musical at Pioneer Theater Company is a cozy, nostalgic treat that is riveting with infectious Christmas spirit. Anyone, especially kids and those who love the iconic film, would love this production. For the most part, Azenberg and her team have truly hit a bullseye with this endearing, lovable production.