Encore Michigan

“Christmas Story” til 12/24 at The Fox; you’ll shoot your eye out

Review December 21, 2016 Jenn McKee

DETROIT, Mich. – One reason for the enduring success of the 1983 movie A Christmas Story – recently adapted for the stage as a musical with a Tony-nominated book by Joseph Robinette and Tony-nominated music and lyrics by U-M grad songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – is the way it frankly acknowledges how a child’s powerlessness often butts up against his earnest dreams.

 For what can a 9-year-old boy do when he desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but his only path to getting one involves convincing the adults in his life, or Santa, that he should get one? Sure, he can try to make his case; but when everyone reflexively dismisses his desire, saying, “You’ll shoot your eye out,” the boy turns to the only means left to him: manipulation. And when that doesn’t work, an eruption of frustrated, childish, physical anger seems inevitable.

Set in a small Indiana town in 1940, in the snowy weeks leading up to Christmas, A Christmas Story was originally inspired by the writings of storyteller and radio personality Jean Shepherd. Though Ralphie (Austin Molinaro) anchors the narrative, A Christmas Story is, more broadly, a comedic tale of family dynamics, as well as an exploration of the world kids inhabit when adults aren’t around. There are bullies, needy little brothers, misinformation, and “triple-dog dares” to contend with daily. Meanwhile, at home, Ralphie’s blustery “Old Man” (Christopher Swan) and dutiful mother (Susannah Jones) square off over an “award” that Ralphie’s father has won in a contest: a lamp that looks like a woman’s leg, sheathed in a fishnet stocking that Ralphie’s dad insists on placing at the house’s front window.

Making the leap from beloved movie classic to the stage can be daunting: you have to recreate the memorable moments everyone loves and expects to see – hence the musical’s two and a half hour running time (a challenge for the wee kiddos you might be tempted to bring) – but you must also somehow make it new, and offer a few moments of surprise. A couple of those come early: Jean Shepherd (Chris Carsten) appears in front of a radio microphone to tell the story of one of his most memorable childhood Christmases (the movie’s grown-up narrator plays a central role, so this is how Robinette solves this translation obstacle); and when The Old Man makes his first appearance on stage, chased by the neighbors’ dogs, we don’t just hear a recording of barks and growls. Instead, we see two live dogs chasing him across the stage – and those familiar with the movie will likely be pleased to know that, yes, you’ll see them again when Ralphie’s mom is working to prepare the family’s Christmas dinner. Oh those Bumpus hounds!

 Not everything from the film makes the cut, of course; the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring swindle gets left behind, as does Ralphie’s framing of an innocent classmate for teaching him “the queen-mother of dirty words.” But the vast majority of scenes make the leap, and several are transformed and expanded by way of full production numbers. In fact, you might start to wonder if they all pull (and justify) their narrative weight, but thanks to Pasek and Paul’s charming musical wit, and Warren Carlyle’s winning choreography, the numbers end up winning you over by song’s-end every time. After all, who could resist a kick line with real dancers’ legs alongside lit leg lamps (“A Major Award”), or a kid’s Old West-inspired fantasies of heroism (“Ralphie to the Rescue”), or a young performer (Lucas Marinetto, who also plays alpha bully Scut Farkus) captivating a crowd with his jaw-droppingly dazzling tap dance skills (featured in “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”)? Not me.

But what ultimately balances the show out, and imbues it with emotional heft, are quieter moments that key into the subtle challenges of family life. Because the Old Man always draws attention to himself, it’s only fitting we should hear from his partner, too, via “What a Mother Does.” And after Ralphie, in a fit of rage, pounds on Farkus until his mother comes and breaks up the fight, she offers a moving meditation on perspective, and the fleeting, small nature of our lives, in “Just Like That.” Finally, when Mother and the Old Man fight about the leg lamp’s destruction, the Parker boys brainstorm ways they can fix their family in the heartbreaking “Before the Old Man Comes Home.”

There’s a racially queasy moment near show’s end, however, when the Parkers seek Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Like the movie, the musical depicts the restaurant’s staff singing “Deck the Halls” with a farcically thick accent. (I’m sad to report that an audience member, on Tuesday night, followed up on this scene by mocking a Chinese gentleman outside the theater, who was passing out brochures to another show.) Instead of being funny, the bit now just feels mean and uncomfortable.

Which is a shame, because overall, the cast, directed by Matt Lenz, does an absolutely spectacular job, including the show’s many young performers. Molinaro commands the stage with ease, and Arick Brooks (as his little brother Randy), along with Jones and Swan, vividly bring the Parkers to life. Plus, fans of Dexter’s Encore Theatre may recognize Matthew Brennan (“Assassins,” “Into the Woods,” “White Christmas,” “South Pacific”) playing multiple roles within the touring production’s ensemble.

When adapting material, directors and stage production crews must figure out how to compensate for effects achieved in film by tight close-ups and editing, and with A Christmas Story, lighting and sound design choices – determined for the touring production by Charlie Morrison and Ed Chapman, respectively – carry much of the load. The overwhelming chaos at Higbee’s Department Store is conveyed through slow motion and echoes, for instance, and a spotlight on Ralphie as he pleads his case to Santa. Similar choices also breathe stage life into the show’s flat tire/profanity scene between Ralphie and the Old Man.

My eight year old daughter didn’t notice these adjustments, of course, because she hasn’t yet seen the movie. But at the show, she keyed in immediately to the central dramatic question – will Ralphie get his coveted BB gun or not? – and grew noticeably more attentive when the stage was largely populated with kids. She clearly craved seeing her world, the one she experiences at school and among friends, depicted truthfully in a story.

And one of the most rewarding things about classics, of course, is getting to share them from one generation to the next. I’ve long sympathized with Ralphie and his struggles when watching the movie, but seeing the stage version, as a parent and an older adult, cued me in far more to the parents’ perspective on things. That’s partly due to Robinette and Pasek and Paul, of course, who have filled in a few gaps and made the parents less goofy; but it’s also due to a powerful moment near the show’s end, when Shepherd explains that he never wondered if his parents loved him. He knew, he explains, that each time they urged him to put on a coat, or something similar, that, in itself, was love.

And as the Fox Theatre lights came up, and I helped get my daughter bundled up to walk to the car, this struck me as a meaningful and eloquent observation.

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