Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An Off-Kilter Family Christmas

Review:  A Christmas Story
A Christmas Story finally fulfills Broadway's long-standing need for a production number centered around a leg-shaped lamp.
Despite its prolific holiday airings on multiple TV stations, I have never actually seen the much beloved film A Christmas Story.  Therefore I cannot judge the musical incarnation, currently playing a limited engagement at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, on its fidelity to the source material, although judging by the anticipatory laughter from the packed house I assume most of the movie’s major comedic beats survived the transfer intact.  Reviewing this adaptation on its own merits, I unfortunately must report that it’s a hit or miss affair that features promising new talent led astray by some dubious directorial choices.

A Christmas Story tells the story of young Ralphie Parker, whose only goal in life is to receive a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas, despite his Mother’s repeated protestations.  “You’ll shoot your eye out,” she warns.  Ralphie’s Old Man isn’t any more receptive, being more preoccupied with winning a crossword competition and repairing the many, many broken devices around the family’s cozy Indiana home.  Ralphie’s quest for the Red Ryder Gun is really just a framing device that allows the show to explore the various mishaps that befall Ralphie and his family as they prepare for the holidays, which include various schoolyard antics, a pair of pesky bloodhounds, and some questionable home décor.

Given the saccharine sweet nature of most holiday offerings, it’s refreshing to see A Christmas Story present such an off-kilter take on traditions like visiting Santa, picking out a tree, and the all-important Christmas dinner.  While the plot gets stretched mighty thin in order to fill a two-and-a-half hour musical, the characters are endearingly quirky and the less-than-perfect holiday shenanigans feel relatable and authentic.  Joseph Robinette’s libretto commits no major sins, even if a few more sections of overt comedy would have been welcomed.  And the score by Broadway newcomers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is a delight, establishing the young songwriters as talents to watch.

It’s unfortunate the show suffers from such uninspired direction by John Rando, the Tony-winning director of the similarly cheeky Urinetown.  Rando’s flat staging makes poor use of the stage and Walt Spangler’s set, and fails to provide the speedy pacing that would help disguise the book scene’s shortcomings.  Many of the solos end up feeling static due to Rando’s minimalist staging, but thankfully A Christmas Story also features a smattering of fantasy sequences that are a visual delight.  The Western-themed “Ralphie to the Rescue” casts the dozen-strong youth ensemble as rough-and-tumble gunslingers and sassy saloon wenches, and the speakeasy-set “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” is far and away the evening’s highlight.  One of the most adorable things you’ll ever see, the young performers dress up as little gangsters and flapper girls to perform a showstopping tap number that features the best dance solo currently on Broadway, made even more impressive by the fact that dancer Luke Spring is only nine-years-old.

In fact, the kids prove to be the strongest members of the show’s cast.  As Ralphie, Johnny Rabe carries the show with aplomb and finesse, acting and singing like a seasoned pro.  Zac Ballard is adorably weird as Ralphie’s younger brother Randy, throwing himself into the show’s physical comedy with the kind of abandon only a child can muster.  Jack Mastrianni and John Babbo are particularly funny as schoolyard bullies Farkus and Dill, and Jeremy Shinder’s goofy best friend Flick proves to be a welcome addition.

When it comes to the adults, John Bolton and Erin Dilly give their all as Ralphie’s Old Man and Mother respectively, but both actors are ultimately betrayed by some questionable writing and a lack of strong direction.  Bolton adeptly switches from bellowing brute to misunderstood everyman, but these personality shifts lack motivation and result in a schizophrenic performance (although his “A Major Award” production number is a winner).  Dilly’s Mother is suitably maternal, a frazzled but loving housewife who only wants what’s best for her family.  Despite some lovely vocals and fine acting from Dilly, Mother’s two songs fail to add anything interesting to her character, slowing the show down rather than enhancing it.  The rest of the adult ensemble fails to make much of an impression good or bad, and is quickly forgotten once they leave the stage.

Ultimately, A Christmas Story has a lot of things going for it.  A holiday show for those who don’t like holiday shows, it evokes the spirit of the season without resorting to cloying sentimentality.  It’s an exciting Main Stem debut for the promising songwriting duo of Pasek and Paul, who between this and Off-Broadway’s Dogfight are having quite the breakout year.  There are certainly worse ways to spend a December evening, and the show’s scheduled two month limited run seems about right for this particular musical.  A Christmas Story’s imperfections are ultimately a part of its charm, and those looking for a holiday treat will find plenty to enjoy.

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