The 1983 movie A Christmas Story was a definitive sleeper hit. Directed by Bob Clark, the film did reasonably well at the box office, easily recouping its comparatively low production costs ($3.3 million) after opening right before Thanksgiving and it was still in about a hundred theaters on New Year’s Day in 1984. Clark was so delighted that MGM had given the go-ahead to make the film that he skipped his director’s salary and plugged $150,000 of his own money to proceed (thanks to the unexpected success of an another low-budget sleeper hit, the 1981 sex comedy Porky’s).
When the MGM studio was collapsing upon its burden of debt, in 1986, Ted Turner purchased some of the the studio’s library which included A Christmas Story and it was Turner who made the film into the classic it has become (the film became part of the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2012). In 1997, after Turner’s company merged with Time Warner Inc., that is when the 24-hour continuous loop broadcasting of the film became an annual tradition spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
In a Variety Fair long-form piece published in 2016, Sam Kashner explained why the film stood out from other holiday flicks. It was “one that acknowledged—even relished—the ‘unbridled avarice,’ the commercialism, the disappointments, the hurt feelings, and all-around bad luck that, in reality, often define the merry season. In other words, what real Christmas was like in real families. It brought a bracing blast of satire and realism, wrapped up in a hilarious, pitch-perfect tale of a middle-class family negotiating the perils of Christmas, recalled through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy.”
The musical version was born in 2009, with book by Joseph Robinette and eventually landed on Broadway for three years, featuring music and lyrics composed by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
A Christmas Story: The Musical receives a spiffy, thoroughly enjoyable rendition of excellent quality in the latest Pioneer Theatre Company (PTC) production, directed and choreographed by Karen Azenberg, PTC’s artistic director. The run continues through Christmas Eve.
No doubt, the kid-dominated cast truly carries the show, which follows quite faithfully the original film. Whether audience members know by heart everything about the 1983 film (of which there are many) or if by some strange circumstance, they had never seen the film, this musical production puts the crowning touch on why A Christmas Story remains rock solid in its popular appeal.
In the film, Jean Shepherd, a writer and radio announcer who wrote the monologues upon which the script was based, provides the voiceover narration. In the musical, a narrator also is present throughout both acts, played with Shepherdian self-effacing charm by Don Noble. On opening night, Mack Boyer channeled the right precocious energy to give audiences the Ralphie they expect in a production of a story which is so widely familiar. Incidentally, Boyer and Soren Ray are rotating performances in the lead role.
The musical has practically all of the characters that many viewers of the film know so well. This includes Ralphie’s family: a dutiful, protective mother (Stacie Bono), the father referred to as ‘the old man’ (Danny Bernardy) and younger brother Randy (Asher Nehring). Yes, there also are Ralphie’s friends: Flick, well known for taking the “triple-dog double dare” to stick his tongue on an icy flagpole (Daniel Sorokine) and Schwartz (Ethan Marchant), the one who dares Flick and later is spanked by his mother because he apparently taught the obscenity Ralphie utters when he spills the lug nuts while helping his father change a tire on the side of the road. Of course, there is the bully Scott Farkus (Austin Flamm), who is vanquished by Ralphie, and Farkus’ toady Grover Dill (Kiyan R.Wyness). The Old Man receives his “major award,” the famous leg lamp, which is ‘accidentally’ broken by the mother. A bit of trivia: the 19th century Victorian home in Cleveland, which was featured in exterior and interior shots for the film, is now a museum that was purchased by the owner of the Red Rider Leg Lamp Company which made bank by manufacturing replicas of the “major award” for fans.
E.J. Zimmerman skillfully leverages the expanded stage time in the role as the teacher Miss Shields. She gives Ralphie a C+ for his theme, when he tries to make the case for his Red Ryder BB gun in his fantasy battle with Black Bart. She is excellent in the second act’s Broadway-style You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out dance number, with the classmates rounding out the ensemble.
Fans of the music from Dear Evan Hansen, also written by Pasek and Paul, will enjoy the songs and dance numbers in A Christmas Story: The Musical. It has that accessible holiday pop music feel. Because Bono’s voice was affected by a cold, understudy Stephanie Maloney sang offstage and the syncing between the two actors was handled very well. The most solid numbers are Sticky Situation, about the flagpole incident, which precedes Miss Shields’ highlight number, and Up On Santa’s Lap. The scene with the department store Santa (rendered in outstanding style by Paris Alexander Nesbitt) is as good as the film version. There is nothing magical about visiting a department store Santa.
With reeds, brass, keyboards, bass and drums, the pit orchestra, conducted by Helen Gregory, is first-class and shines throughout, balanced in ensemble and never eclipsing the voices or choruses on stage.
Noble truly anchors the nostalgic tone as narrator without being cloyingly sentimental. One can appreciate the fidelity of the stage version in honoring the premises of Shepherd’s original take. It is The Old Man who comes through in fulfilling Ralphie’s wish for his cherished BB gun, as actor Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie in the film, has explained in interviews. Remember that Ralphie never asked his father for it but The Old Man just knew by instinct what to get his son for Christmas.
For more information and tickets for performances at the Simmons Memorial Pioneer Theatre at The University of Utah, see the PTC website.