A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL
Book by Joseph Robinette
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Based Upon The Motion Picture A Christmas Story (Screenplay by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark),
and upon the novel In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd
Directed and Choreographed by James A. Rocco and Sharon Halley
Presented by Ordway Center For The Performing Arts
In many ways A Christmas Story (based on the now iconic 1983 movie, which in turn was based on Jean Shepherd’s iconic 1966 novel In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash) is the perfect Christmas tale. While dripping in late 1930s nostalgia for a simpler time and simpler pleasures (where a Red Ryder Carbine-Action BB Gun was the penultimate gift a boy could ask for), Shepherd’s story and the film that resulted from it became popular for its uproarious humor. While the set pieces have become popular (being pushed down Santa’s slide, the Bumpus Hounds’ Christmas Day raid, the “major award”), it’s that delicate balance between sentimentality and side-splitting humor that has served as a tonic to the basic Christmas tales out there.
If I have any complaints about the show, it’s more in how the story was adapted for the stage than the story being told. Joseph Robinette’s book is rather tidy in how it adapts the big beats of the story and manages to find great moments for songs, but I do question the decision of putting Jean Shepherd onstage as a character. Shepherd’s voice and delivery are so unique that anyone attempting the role either falls in the trap of bad impersonation or sounding so off that it will snap you out of the story. This is not a knock against Gary Briggle’s lovely and charming performance – his mischievous twinkle matches Ralphie’s to a tee, and it’s easy to connect the dots from young Ralphie to old Jean – but it is a trap that is inherent in the role. Also, the role of Mother feels underdeveloped, and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s ballads for the character unintentionally smooth over the angles of the character.
All of that said, any quibbles I may have with script are pushed to the side thanks to the Ordway’s production; it’s first big local production since Cinderella in 2011. Producing Artistic Director James A. Rocco and his co-director and choreographer Sharon Halley have assembled a great company onstage and behind to tell this story with gusto. The physical production (scenery by J. Branson, lighting by Wm. P. Healey, costumes by Lynda L. Salsbury) is not only sumptuous, but is accurate in period detail. Jeff Rizzo’s music direction is on point with a fantastic reading of the score and exceptional work from the predominantly local cast (with a chorus including such ringers as Jennifer Eckes, Larissa Gritti, Suzie Juul, Juliane Mundale, Kersen Rodau, Randy Schmeling, Carl Schoenborn, Brent Teclar, Austene Van, Tony Vierling, and Linda Talcott Lee). And it must be said, the children’s ensemble is simply spectacular and handles everything with zeal.
As for the principal roles, one of the best things that Rocco and Halley have done for their cast is allow them to find their own way with the roles and not parrot the performances in the iconic film. The results are genuine and genuinely fantastic. Jake Goodman is a genuine revelation as Ralphie; commanding the stage with a stage presence that grounds the show. Dieter Bierbrauer is manages to recreate the role of The Old Man with a sleek, loose-limbed performance that is hilarious to watch. Billie Wildrick does what she can with the severely underwritten role of Mother with a lovely stage presence and a beautiful voice. And Erin Schwab darn near steals the show as Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields (and turns her Act Two number “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” into a genuine show stopper).
It’s been three years since The Ordway produced a full musical in house; with local talent on and behind stage delivering Broadway-caliber performances. All it was waiting for was a show that it could use to show off the amazing resources it has at its disposal. Thankfully, A Christmas Story: The Musical is the gift that it was waiting for. And what a great gift it is for us lucky theatre goers.
A Christmas Story: The Musical continues through December 28; with performances 7:30pm Tuesdays through Sundays and 2 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. All performances are at The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, located at 345 Washington St in St. Paul. Tickets are $36-110, and can be purchased at the Ordway’s site.
Photo Credit: Christian Brown