SMITHFIELD — Traditions are serious business in my family. Every year, the exact same songs, food, and movies must be consumed in order for Christmas to really happen. When I heard that the 1983 nostalgic motion picture masterpiece, A Christmas Story, was being adapted into a Broadway musical my reaction was, “Well, they better not fudge it up!” I have literally watched that movie every year of my life. It just isn’t Christmas without it. Joseph Robinette wrote the book and made sure that the story is not only preserved, but often enhanced by the peppy, period-flavored score penned by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The catchy lyrics and strong melodies strengthen several of the characters and situations in meaningful ways. And while nothing could ever replace the original movie in my heart, the Four Seasons Theatre Company’s production is cute, corny, wholesome, and sentimental in all the best ways.
Director Kody Rash hasbrought together a cohesive show filled with excellent singing, acting, and technical designs. The set design by Lineset Design and Fabrication is stunning as it quickly flies or rolls in and out to set each scene. The family house is cozy and inviting in that particular shade of post-war pink often seen in faded family photographs.
The show is set up as a radio program narrated by Jean Shepard, played to perfection by Sam Petersen, who tells the story of how he received the best Christmas present of his life. Petersen gives a warm and funny performance as he follows around Ralphie and relays the tale of his quest for that special BB Gun during that December long ago. His commentary delivers some of the funniest lines, especially during the “Oh, fuuuudge” scene.
Young Ralphie is played by Soren Pederson, is delightful as the young hero of the show. He seamlessly moves the action from reality to inside Ralphie’s imagination. The score asks a lot of the young performers of the show, and I was impressed by how well all the younger actors were able to rise to the challenge. Pederson’s enthusiasm was infectious in “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun,” but I was also impressed by the tender quality he was able to show during “Before the Old Man Comes Home” when he sings with his brother Randy (played by Derekn Geddes) about ways they can help their parents. Geddes is convincing as the tag-a-long brother who refuses to eat his dinner and hilariously screams when it is Randy’s turn to see Santa. The two boys also have sweet voices during “Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana” when the kids all sing about their anticipation of the next morning with great harmonies.
The biggest contribution of the musical is the way it adds details to the characters of Ralphie’s parents. His mother (played by Celeste Baillio) is the heart of the family as she sings about “What a Mother Does” to make the house into home. All the unseen labor of love to keep up the house and take care of everyone around her likely resonates with the moms in the audience. Baillio is also realistic when she shoves Randy into his snowsuit to keep him warm, which is one of the funniest moments of the show. I also appreciated the tenderness when Mother teaches Ralphie that bad times come, but they can also pass quickly in “Just Like That.” Baillio’s voice is beautiful and her portrayal of Ralphie’s mom feels very authentic and deep.
The biggest standout performance is from Stanton Allen as The Old Man (Ralphie’s father). The character’s feud with the off-stage neighbor mutts, which sends him into streams of feigned profanity is a great reoccurring gag. It is not easy to curse a stream of “expletives” in a G-rated family show, but Allen makes his rage palpable. Also, Allen’s tenor voice croons smoothly in “The Genius on Cleveland Street,” and he impresses with his show-stopping number “A Major Award” with all the glitz and glam. For the latter song, the men of the ensemble are in sequined tuxes and the women wear in fishnet tights and gold dresses that drip with Old Hollywood charm. Mother’s costume adds a hoop to the bottom of her skirt and makes her look like the leg lamp. Allen is dazzling during this number, making his dance moves quirky and separate from the ensemble in a funny way, but never sacrificing his belting on vocals. This was one of the top numbers for vocals and costumes.
The costume design by Kody and Kim Rash is impressive, and Kody Rash as director often uses quick costume changes to move scenes from 1940s reality to Ralphie’s imagination and back. The costumes also quickly convey a lot of information at critical moments, such as when Jean Shepard’s Christmas sweater is the exact same sweater that young Ralphie walks in wearing at the top of the show. There were only two times that I felt like the costumes pulled from the action. One instance was right after the very good Kid Gangster Fantasy. All the children had to run offstage and get into winter clothes for next scene when Ralphie would be heading to school and encounter his nemesis Scut Farkus (played by Andrew Williams) and his toady Grover Dill (played by Ethan Baillio). The costume change took too long and killed the show’s pacing with a very long pause. Another distracting costume delay occurred when Ralphie was trying to get a pair of chaps buckled during one of his cowboy fantasies, and it took a long time for Pederson to manage the buckle. Aside from those two instances where the costumes are difficult to manage or transition, the design of the costumes is excellent (especially the for the fantasy sequences) and really helps to set the scenes.
The main actors of the show are all very talented and give stellar performances, but the ensemble is impressively strong as well. Music director Jennifer Bohman has asssembled a very strong ensemble, especially from the younger cast. Unfortunately, I can not praise the choreography of this production much. Choreographers Katie Packard, AnnAlyse Chidester, and Melisa Jensen keep the choreography simple enough, and it was executed cleanly throughout the play. Several songs are written with lengthy dance sequences in the score, which desperately needed to be filled in a little more. However, Kody Rash filled in some of the dance sequences with fun stage business that was more interesting than the basic dance (for example, when Scut Farkus and Grover Dill play “rock, paper, scissors” and Grover keeps changing his choice to make sure that Farkus wins).
I appreciated that this musical adaptation honors the core of the story that many people grew up watching; it is incredibly nostalgic while still adding to the narrative. The themes of A Christmas Story shine brightly in the stage version. The final ballad of the show is written to pull on the heartstrings both lyrically and melodically, and I admit that I shed a tear as the Parker family sang “Christmas Morning.” The key and tempo made me pensive and reflect on what parents say verses what they mean. Parents might say “You’ll shoot your eye out!” But what they really mean is: “I love you.” This beautiful message has always been there, but I loved having it spelled out so succinctly for younger audience members. While my family tradition of seeing the movie every year will never change, I will gladly add a new tradition of seeing A Christmas Story: The Musical to my holiday rotation. The Four Season Theatre Company’ss production is perfect for families, offers solid performances, strong design, and a lot of heart, making it an immensely enjoyable way to start the holiday season.