For a holiday that has infused Western culture with garish decorations, cheerful carols and sweet confections, Christmas hasn’t exactly birthed a multitude of enduring pop-culture entertainments.
But in 1983, a quirky movie about a bespectacled kid named Ralphie insinuated its way into the jaded heart of America. Ralphie dreams of finding a BB gun under the Christmas tree, and his journey is more raucously funny than sweetly sentimental.
“A Christmas Story,” which has been adapted as both a stage play and a Broadway musical, the latter of which arrived at the Fox Theatre on Tuesday night, is a coming-of-age tale that conceals its nostalgic core with a series of comedic lulus that never get old.
Ralphie’s domestic life is peopled by a little brother who refuses to eat, a father who attacks crossword puzzles with competitive zeal and a ministering mother who manages to hold it all together, even when the car breaks down and the furnace belches.
Along the way, the father wins “a major award” that turns out to be a lamp shaped like a woman’s leg, and Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun gets dismissed over and over again with the words: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” (And when one schoolkid gets a triple-dog-dare to lick a flagpole in freezing weather, it becomes, to quote the song title, “A Sticky Situation” to be sure.)
I’m happy to report that all this material arrives safely in the musical comedy by Joseph Robinette (book) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics), directed here by Matt Lenz with choreography by Warren Carlyle.
While the film was narrated as a voice-over by the adult Ralphie (based on real-life author Jean Shepherd), here that character is a live human actor (Chris Carsten). And the small 1940s Indiana town is depicted as a cacophony of children, both bullying and angelic; unruly neighborhood dogs; a brassy school teacher (Angelica Richie) and, of course, Santa Claus himself (Andrew Berlin).
Though I found the device of the adult Ralphie a little distracting at first, things eventually fall into place, and the family’s snow-capped, gingerbread-like house and Miss Shields’ classroom become the backdrop for some delightful singing and dancing.
In “Ralphie to the Rescue!,” the central character (played on opening night by a super-expressive Austin Molinaro) fancies himself as a BB gun-wielding Wild West cowboy, who upholds law and order and becomes the hero of a certain damsel in distress. In “A Major Award,” the arrival of the infamously shapely lamp trips the imagination of “The Genius on Cleveland Street” (that is, the father), and the stage is filled by a chorus of high-kicking limbs and a bevy of fake gams, too. Hilarious.
(Less successful is an awkward BB gun dance sequence featuring both Ralphies.)
From time to time, this show comes across as a bit uneven and in need of a good polish. But three performers who never let us down are Christopher Swan (as Ralphie’s Old Man); Susannah Jones (as his mother) and Arick Brooks (as his brother, Randy).
Swan is a first-rate ham. Jones has a lovely voice and is just right as the loving mama with the heart of gold. And Brooks makes for an adorable little stinker. Come to think of it, Hoss and Stella (who play the marauding hounds) are pretty fabulous, too.
As a diversion from the multitude of Scrooges and “It’s a Wonderful Life” reruns, “A Christmas Story: The Musical” is welcome, crowd-pleasing entertainment.
This is Christmas as we all know it, full of demoralizing trials and tribulations — and one last-minute triumph (which goes off the rails in typical Ralphie fashion). The holiday may be decked in tinsel, glitter and boughs of holly, but in the end, it’s annoying parents, whiny little brothers and hateful schoolchildren, too.
“A Christmas Story” reminds us how human we are. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“A Christmas Story: The Musical”
Through Sunday. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $33.50-$93.50 (additional fees apply). Broadway in Atlanta, Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, BroadwayInAtlanta.com/Christmas.
Bottom line: Musical hits the target of family-friendly fun.
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