Dan Lauria has played dads on television (“The Wonder Years” and “Sullivan & Son”), an irascible football coach on Broadway (“Lombardi”), and hundreds of character roles in films and TV, but “A Christmas Story: The Musical” is his musical theater debut.
“You’ll be happy to know I don’t sing a note, and I definitely don’t dance,” Lauria said on a recent visit to Boston before the Nov. 20-Dec. 8 run of “A Christmas Story” at the Citi Performing Arts Center. What he does do is play Jean Shepherd, the author and narrator of “A Christmas Story,” which began as Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” evolved into a radio play, and then was adapted into a 1983 film that developed cult status.
“I serve as a kind of Greek chorus,” Lauria said. “All my lines are direct address to the audience. I comment and react to the action, providing some transitions by speaking as Ralphie’s grownup self.”
Ralphie, if you’ve managed to miss the many holiday airings of “A Christmas Story,” is the boy who longs for a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas and is determined to convince dubious adults that he will not, in fact, shoot his eye out with it. Along the way, we are treated to a nostalgic view of pre-World War II America, when a child might get his tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole; holding a bar of soap in your mouth was the punishment for swearing; and the word “fragile” could be misinterpreted as an Italian word pronounced “fra-JEE-lay.”
Turning the movie into a musical was the dream of producer Gerald Goehring, who said Ralphie’s fantasy sequences and the imaginative nature of the story lend themselves to singing and dancing. “We went back to the original stories and found we could develop some of the characters a little more,” Goehring said on his visit to Boston with Lauria. “There’s an opportunity to celebrate the family aspect of the story, which is at the heart of ‘A Christmas Story.’ ”
But that still doesn’t explain how the non-singing Lauria landed the role.
“They tricked me,” Lauria said with a laugh. “They told me I’d be up in a radio booth and I wouldn’t even have to memorize my lines. But honestly, this show appealed to me because it’s more than just a movie on stage. The music let’s your imagination soar.”
As the show developed through 2012, with performances in Kansas City, Seattle, and Chicago before a run on Broadway that resulted in three Tony Award nominations, including best musical, Lauria moved front and center. He said he enjoyed the opportunity to be a part of the show’s evolution. Although he may not be a singer or dancer, Lauria has a long list of stage credits, including a 1978 appearance in Boston, along with Al Pacino, in “Arturo Ui.”
“I always make sure I get back on stage,” he said, “and I like the fact that the musical goes back to the original story. As Jean Shepherd, and Ralphie’s conscience, I provide some important transitions.
“But,” he said, “I still rely on the kids in the show to give me my cues and get me off stage before I get run over by dancers in a production number.”
The show, which features principal members of the Broadway cast, will return to New York for the holiday season after its Boston engagement.
Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie in the film, joined the musical’s producing team early on and said Lauria was always on the short list for the role of Shepherd. “Dan is an incredibly likeable guy, and will forever fondly be remembered as the iconic TV dad in ‘The Wonder Years,’ ” Billingsley said over the phone from his Los Angeles office. Billingsley also knows Lauria from the TBS sitcom “Sullivan & Son,” which he co-produces. “Dan anchors this musical for us and is a role model for the kids in the cast to look up to.”
Thirty years after starring in the film, Billingsley said Shepherd’s writing about family remains compelling for him. “There’s something wonderful about the family’s epic pursuit of the mundane,” he said. “Audiences connect with their struggle for things that always remain just out of reach.”
And with his long association with “A Christmas Story,” does Billingsley offer advice the musical’s young stars?
“I’m floored by what these kids are able to do,” he says. “They have the entire show in their heads, and they do all this singing and dancing. Working on the film, I’d do a scene, get a couple of takes, and then go back to my trailer for a while. These kids are going non-stop through the entire show. My only advice to them is, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing!’ ”
Lauria too, said he’s in awe of the children in the show, particularly Jake Lucas, who stars as Ralphie. “I’m amazed by his singing and dancing talent,” Lauria said. But while the production numbers are fun, he said, they never get in the way of the storytelling.
“There’s a real sense of the generational connections,” Lauria said. “Ultimately, this story is about the relationship between a father and a son, and what it means to a young boy to earn his father’s approval.”