Opening Nights: A Christmas Story: The Musical!

A future holiday hit in chrysalis, thanks in part to its sixth-grade star.

The investors backing A Christmas Story: The Musical! hope you'll go see their show for the sets, the tunes, the dancing, and whatever lingering goodwill you feel for the 1983 movie A Christmas Story (yes, the one rebroadcast ad nauseam on TBS during the holidays). I just want you to let 11-year-old star Clarke Hallum and his stage dad, John Bolton, wear you out with their talent. Broadway veteran Bolton moves as though the sitcom-era Dick Van Dyke had taken over Stephen Colbert's body, and he'd steal the show were it not for Olympia sixth-grader Hallum. This kid is from another realm entirely; whenever he's onstage, you simply won't want to look anywhere else. This 5th Avenue production is the second attempt to turn the late radio raconteur Jean Shepherd's holiday memoirs into a musical. After last year's initial run in Kansas City, director Eric Rosen and the producers ditched the original score. New composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have invigorated this '40s fable with catchy hooks and more youthful zeal. Watching the cast rip into these new songs is like seeing sugar-starved kids descend upon a piñata. The real treats are inside, they know; and they cannot wait to share them with you. But there's a good deal of flailing along the way. All the set pieces from the 1983 movie, narrated by Shepherd, are present. You get the bunny suit, the department-store-Santa debacle, and of course the "fragile" leg lamp, which receives a sublime Rockettes sendup here. As with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Young Frankenstein, and other movies made into musicals, the struggle lies in how to sate expectation while providing anything new enough to claim originality. Joseph Robinette's book sets the show in Shepherd's memory and, appropriately, stages it as a radio play. So we have redoubtable local Frank Corrado as Shepherd, who guides his audience through reminiscences both idyllic and fanciful. The stage becomes a glittering ice palace where minimal set pieces glide in and out. Scenic designer Walt Spangler gets these just right; they're neither literal nor beyond the pale, but as whimsical as the young imaginations from which they've sprung. At the center of the yuletide maelstrom is the Parker family: Swear-meister supreme Dad (Bolton), Donna Reed–esque Mom (the terrific Anne Allgood, who does much with the little she's provided), little brother Randy (a perfectly cast Matthew Lewis), and that would-be owner of a Red Ryder BB air rifle—with a compass in the stock—Ralphie (Hallum). At two-and-a-half hours, the show is at least 30 minutes too long. But it's also easy to see that this Christmas Story is a future holiday hit in chrysalis. Too many characters get too many showcases, but once those are pared back, what's left should be a sturdy framework to which Rosen and company can better sync their melodies. When they're on—as in Bolton's ham-fest, "A Major Award"—they know they've struck gold. It's nothing from the movie, but something magical they've done all by themselves. At present, however, the show is a vehicle for Bolton and wunderkind Hallum. Witnessing his vocal control, his timing, and the nuance he puts into his delivery, it's hard not to be reminded of an audition film Berry Gordy endlessly watched in 1968 featuring the then-unknown Michael Jackson. Hallum is as in his element belting showtunes as MJ was covering James Brown, and that is something to behold. No one can say for sure whether A Christmas Story: The Musical! will be around in 30 years or if Hallum will then be a star. But right now, my money's on the kid.

 
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