Chicago Theatre Review
A Christmas Story – The Musical is a major REward
By Lazlo Collins
The Chicago leg of a two week tour, “A Christmas Story” – The Musical opened at the Chicago Theater last night.
Amid a late but appreciative crowd, I was holding my expectations at bay. Having seen the movie that this latest endeavor is based upon, I was not at all sure that the musical would capture the warmth and charm of the original cinematic sequences and characters.
I am happy to report that this production of “A Christmas Story” brings to life the story of Ralphie and Co. to its most full holiday splendor.
The story of one boy’s dreams of a fulfilling fire armed Christmas is brought to life in vivid staging, costumes, and characters that are now classics in the Holiday must see checklist.
The story begins with expert narration by Gene Weygandt, playing “Jean Shephard” who recollects what it was like growing up in the Parker family household. His perfect deliver of observations and sentimentality, lets the audience know they will be well cared for during their journey into the lives of the Parkers and the surrounding neighborhood characters.
The introduction of each of the Parker household is next. We meet “The Old Man” (John Bolton), “Mother” (Rachel Bay Jones), brother “Randy” (Matthew Lewis), and “Ralphie” (Clarke Hallum). To say that each plays their rolls to perfection would be an understatement. Each presents themselves and their points of view through the story with ease.
Mr. Bolton’s gives 110% every minute he is on stage, and nearly brings down the house with his “Major Awards” musings. Every leg is available and makes it into the end of this high kicking musical number. In contrast, Ms. Bay Jones’ sweet number “Just Like That” makes us yearn for our own mother’s perspective just one more time.
Mr. Lewis and Mr. Hallum show the greatest affection as brothers, and are comfortable in their fights and fits of brotherly love; but Mr. Hallum as “Ralphie” soars above the cast as he brings “Ralphie” to life. He takes us along his journey of discovery, scheming, fear, and ultimate satisfaction with a magnificent voice and expert acting chops. The moment he opens his unexpected present near the end of the show, brought a tear to my eye. His crystal clear voice and warm heart will not disappoint those diehard “Ralphie” fans from the movie. (The original Ralphie, Peter Billingsley, was in the house, and who is also one of the producers of the show)
The excellent supporting children in the show were terrific. I have not seen a show in a long time where the children were playing children, and not some idea about how children should act. Little “Grover Dill” played by John Francis Babbo made me laugh more than a few times. All their voices and harmonies were spot on. Much praise for the pint size ensemble that made me want to be a kid again.
Some supporting cast notables were Karen Mason as “Miss Shields”, Nick Gaswirth as “The Foley Artist”, and Adam Pelty as “Santa Claus”.
Ms. Mason’s evil teacher show stopping “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” is bound to be a classic and Mr. Gaswirth’s dependable, if not scene stealing, sound effects were just great; particularly, the dogs and Mrs. Schwartz. And as the motivationally challenged Santa in the number, “Up on Santa’s Lap”, Mr. Pelty delivers it message with satisfaction.
The chorus of neighbors, parents and various service people are brought to life with great vocals and exacting choreography.
The direction by John Rando, kept the show moving with performance areas to discover, and with each scene quickly unfolding for the next one.
The set design (Walt Spangler) was a pleasant and appropriate addition to the story, making sure that some key places were present for the audience. For what would “A Christmas Story” be without Higgbee’s, the flag pole or the Santa Slide, right? The lighting design (Howell Binkly) was a key component to the white snowy stage, but never detracted from the action at hand.
The music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were sweet and keeping with the tone of the storytelling, and yet bringing us some memorable show stopping numbers, producing a pleasant listening experience.
With the costumes (Elizabeth Hope Clancy) just right, the characters kept us enwrapped during the performance. The show’s energy and joy kept a smile on this face, even for a few hours after the full holiday adrenaline was over.
My only complaint was much of the show was directed toward dead center, leaving some viewers on the sides “left out” of some of the scenes that appeared in the Parker house. The radio desks at stage right and left may not have been a problem in a different house.
With the inundation of holiday choices to see and relive, year after year, put “A Christmas Story” – The Musical on your nice list. I know Santa has…