As sure as Ralphie is going to shoot his eye out, everyone but the most dedicated Scrooge hopes Christmas will be, if not “magical,” at least enjoyable. To that end, we can count on every old chestnut of the season showing up in the TV guides and on stages. Relatively new to the annual lineup is “A Christmas Story” – much newer than “Christmas Carol” or “White Christmas”, but old enough to be in the national consciousness.
Jean Shepherd started it with his autobiographically-based radio stories. Mildly humorous, as an adult’s perspective on his childhood must be, he wove into his 1930s –‘40s working class Indiana neighborhood the local bullies, the triple dog-dare challenges, the Olympian dreams of heroism, and of course, the longing for a Red Ryder BB gun. The film based on the story emerged in 1983 and became a seasonal classic. Twenty-six years later, the inevitable musical appeared.
On stage at Riverside until New Year’s Eve, “A Christmas Story – the Musical” hits the right notes where it matters most. Directed by Pierre-Jacque Brault (who also choreographed with Stephanie Wood) the story moves briskly, faithfully following the well-known narration of the movie.
Relying heavily (as of course it must) on child talent, Riverside is fortunate in its discovery of young Marcus Dowd who is as believable a Ralphie Parker as one could hope for. Accompanied by little brother Randy (Mitchell Austin), Mother (Sheri Hayden) and The Old Man (Russell Rinker), the Parker family comes alive in all its bumptious but well- meaning glory. What viewer over a certain age doesn’t remember being told to eat your dinner because other children in some vague part of the world were starving?
Alan Hoffman takes on the Jean Shepherd role, beginning in front of a radio microphone and then narrating us back to his late 1930s childhood in the weeks before Christmas. The crux of the story, as we know, centers on his yearning for a Red Ryder BB Gun and the Herculean obstacles he must surmount in order to convince the adults – including a disinterested Santa (Ian Lane) – that he will NOT shoot his eye out. But the charm is in the details – the bonding rituals and challenges of neighborhood kids and the inscrutable logic of adult behavior.
While some routines are predictable (Mother sings “What a Mother Does” which has no new information) the most delightful moments are in fantasy. Ralphie imagines he can beguile his teacher, Miss Shields (the usual spot-on performance by Velma Gil) into giving him an A+ on his Christmas essay and day dreams of himself as hero in the lively cowboy themed “Ralphie to the Rescue!” And it’s not just children who fantasize. The Old Man’s quest to be a big winner results in delivery of the famous Leg Lamp, a life-changing event which leads to the glittering routine, “A Major Award.” And then there’s “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”, a snazzy fantasy in a 1930s Speakeasy starring Miss Shields and ensemble in the most exciting choreography
(both by Stephanie Woods) of the show. A terrific number!
A live orchestra conducted by Walter McCoy provides the music, another big uptick for this venue, but Bethany Galyen’ s sound design occasionally ramps up to startling levels. The Old Man has a big voice and doesn’t need the ear splitting volumes that occasionally shook the rafters.
Set design by Nicholas Thornburg is functional and simple – okay for a story about simple times – and pieces turned and slid off and on easily in transitions. However, there is a certain generic quality to the basic home interior. This is supposed to be set in the late ‘30s or very early ‘40s, yet inconsistencies on stage are confusing. A properly old fashioned radio sits in the window, while a 1970s wall phone hangs over the kitchen sink. Spaces aren’t delineated with any particular definition (why can’t Mother and The Old Man sit on a love seat together Christmas morning instead of forcing her to wander around?), and while her hair is correct for the times, her clothes are also generic. This isn’t a felony, however, as the Mother in the movie was stunningly wrong.
“A Christmas Story – the Musical” nevertheless has a strong sense of unity, thanks to well-cast players and crew. This show, along with excellent fare from the kitchen, goes on the holiday “recommend” list, but with an urgent note. On the night of my visit, the place was packed to the top tier. A nice Christmas present for Riverside – but not so nice for those who want to see it but wait till the last minute.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “A Christmas Story – The Musical”
Where: Riverside Dinner Theatre, 95 Riverside Pkwy., Fredericksburg, Va.
Call: (540) 370-4300 or visit riversidedt.com
Playing through Dec. 31