When I heard that “A Christmas Story’’ was being turned into a stage musical, my first reaction was “Oh, fudge.’’ Except that, like young Ralphie Parker after the lug nuts get spilled while he’s helping his father change a flat tire, I didn’t say “Fudge.’’
Anyone who cherishes the 1983 movie is likely to understand and possibly share that reaction.
What lodges the film so firmly in the heart is that it manages to be simultaneously sardonic and sentimental, sustaining a delicate tonal balance between wised-up wit and full-on nostalgia as it sketches a portrait of an Everykid character (9-year-old Ralphie) with a kid-size dream (to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas) while capturing his daily life, his fantasy life, and heck, even his inner life.
That’s a complicated equation, built on an eccentric, hard-to-bottle brand of whimsy. Wouldn’t the sheer weight of a musical adaptation flatten the gossamer charms of “A Christmas Story’’?
Not necessarily, as it turns out. Especially not if you take pains to preserve the film’s cheerfully anarchic spirit, as the creative team behind “A Christmas Story, the Musical’’ has done. After premiering on Broadway last year, the musical adaptation is now at the Citi Wang Theatre, featuring most of the principal cast members from the Broadway production, and it’s a charmer.
You can’t say that the score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul breaks any new ground, but you can say that it’s consistently enjoyable and sometimes more than that. Director John Rando and choreographer Warren Carlyle sustain an overall buoyancy of mood and a fleetness of pace throughout. The Wang proscenium is framed by gigantic, curved, snowflake-like shapes in shades of pink and blue (the set design is by Walt Spangler) and the Parkers’ home has a gingerbread house quality, underscoring the fable-like story that is being told.
Dan Lauria (the dad on “The Wonder Years,’’ the title character in “Lombardi’’) hits just the right notes of wry bemusement as the radio humorist Jean Shepherd, who narrates the action in mock-heroic style, as if the exploits of a bespectacled boy in northern Indiana in 1940 were the stuff of Homeric epic.
The film version of “A Christmas Story’’ is largely based on Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust; All Others Pay Cash.’’ Part of what makes the musical work is that it reflects Shepherd’s understanding that a big part of childhood experience – maybe the most important part — plays out not in the world but in the imagination. To an imaginative kid like Ralphie, “the real world’’ is nothing more than a jumping-off point.
That sensibility is given life in buoyant production numbers like “Ralphie to the Rescue,’’ in which Ralphie, attired in a white cowboy hat and white chaps, fantasizes himself as the hero of a Wild West extravaganza. Jake Lucas makes Ralphie a likeable underdog to root for, plotting and scheming to get that Red Ryder rifle even though everyone from his mother to his teacher to a half-drunk department store Santa tells him “You’ll shoot your eye out.’’
But it has to be said that for present-day audiences, seeing a young boy with a rifle in his hands is a queasy business. And while we’re on the subject of queasiness, the stereotypical depiction of an Asian-American waiter pronouncing his “l’s’’ as “r’s’’ at the end of the show has got to go.
The loose-limbed John Bolton excels as Ralphie’s sputtering, furnace-battling father (called the Old Man), and Erin Dilly is equally good as the boy’s gentle yet strong-willed mother. Also a major asset: Caroline O’Connor as Ralphie’s teacher.
When the Old Man wins a garish lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg, complete with fishnet stocking, Bolton lets us see and feel every ounce of the father’s jubilation in the uproarious “A Major Award.’’ The Old Man’s moment of triumph is short-lived, alas, and when that lamp is mysteriously broken Bolton and Dilly are masterful in their scenes of recrimination and reconciliation. Dilly, who somewhat looks and sounds like the late and very great Madeline Kahn, brings a quiet, tender beauty to her rendition of “What A Mother Does.’’ It’s one of numerous pleasant moments in a production that provides a nifty reminder of What A Musical Does.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.