Chicago Theatre Review
You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!
A Christmas Story, The Musical – Paramount Theatre
Paramount Theatre has done it again! Following their magnificent season opener of “Oklahoma,” guest director Nick Bowling makes his Paramount debut by producing a very special family treat for the holidays. It’s all decked out in glitter, tinsel and colored lights. Carefully adapted by prolific playwright Joseph Robinette from the 1983 Christmas film classic, which, in turn, had been inspired by Jean Shepherd’s personal memoir, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, this is a warmhearted, nostalgic remembrance of growing up in the 1940’s. It features a bubbly score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that converts most of the story’s main events into song. Exceptionally cast and performed, costumed and staged with the slickness of an authentic Broadway production, this is a show that’s guaranteed to bring a big grin to even the biggest Grinch.
Robinette’s script, which is true to the movie, begins in the present, introducing real life author and narrator Jean Shepherd (played with warmth and fondness by Philip Earl Johnson) as he bustles into his radio studio. There he begins the holiday edition of his program, recollecting one particular Christmas memory, from growing up in fictional Hohman, Indiana. Whereas Jean Shepherd’s narration in the film was laden with literary cuteness, his contribution here has been softened for the stage. Instead, we enjoy some snappy musical numbers that serve to connect the episodic story and illustrate the main character’s fantasies.
From there the audience is transported back to the early 1940’s, when money was scarce and everyone was struggling to recover from the Great Depression. Nine year old Ralphie, Shepherd’s fictional alter-ego, has one wish for Christmas: a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun, with a compass in the stock and a thing for telling the time. He
does everything in his power to ensure that his request is known. He drops some not-so-subtle hints to his parents by leaving ads for the gun all over the house. He writes a “What I Want For Christmas” essay for his teacher, Miss Shields. He even resorts to visiting Santa at Higbee’s Department Store. Unfortunately, the only response Ralphie receives from everyone is, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
Throughout the episodic days that lead up to Christmas, familiar subplots from the film play out before our eyes. The Old Man (Shepherd’s nickname for his dad) fights a never-ending battle with the furnace, thwarts off the neighbor’s pack of annoying hounds, wins a provocative lamp for solving a crossword puzzle and teaches Ralphie the finer points of changing a flat tire. Between his wild fantasies centering around owning the BB gun, Ralphie’s tormented by schoolyard bullies, learns to fight back, lets go with the F word during another particularly frustrating moment, dares his friend to stick his tongue to the flagpole and succumbs to wearing a pink bunny onesie, a Christmas gift from his aunt. And, when Christmas dinner goes to the dogs, The Old Man saves the day by treating everyone to a roast duck at the local Chinese restaurant. The musical concludes with the entire company singing the beautiful title song.
Nick Bowling’s production is a sepia-toned trip down memory lane. For theatergoers who know the movie by heart, as well as for those patrons hearing this joyous and loving story for the first time, Mr. Bowling’s staging will not disappoint. But this earnestly presented musical will truly speak to the patron for whom personal memories are rekindled of a more innocent time. The era of moms who inspired June Cleaver, dads who are Fathers Who Know Best and kids whose imaginations were sparked by radio programs, like “The Lone Ranger” and “Little Orphan Annie,” will once again come alive. That’s part of what makes Christmas so special: the traditions and memories that flood our lives during this special time of the year.
Once again Paramount has a superlative cast, featuring a talented ensemble, often upstaged by a dozen unbelievably gifted youngsters. Heading the cast is young Michael Harp as Ralphie. A scene stealer from Drury Lane’s recent “Billy Elliot,” as well as playing Kurt in the Lyric’s “Sound of Music, Master Harp has the voice of an angel and the tapping feet of Fred Astaire. He’s absolutely terrific in this role. With songs like “It All Comes Down
to Christmas,” “When You’re a Wimp” and “Ralphie to the Rescue” this young actor leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that here’s a future Broadway star in the making.
With equal transcendence and talent, beautiful Jeff Award-winning actress Dani Smith (Marriott’s “City of Angels”) and handsome, hearty Michael Accardo (Paramount’s “The Music Man”) bring brio and brilliancy to Mom and The Old Man. Both actors not only give grounded, honest and loving performances as the parents, but they demonstrate superb comic timing matched by exquisite singing voices. Together they musically proclaim “The Genius on Cleveland Street” and boast of “A Major Award,” while Ms. Smith has the show’s best solo ballads with “What a Mother Does” and the poignant “Just Like That.” The always reliable and much-welcome Ericka Mac makes a strict, no-nonsense teacher, Miss Shields, pulling out all the stops leading a dazzling ensemble tap number, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.” Theo Moss is adorable as little Randy, Ralphie’s younger brother, as are all the remarkably talented children in this company. Mark David Kaplan, always a welcome addition to any production, plays several roles. However Mr. Kaplan (a Jeff Award-winner for “Les Miserables”) plays a sassy, ad-libbing somewhat sloshed Santa Claus, one of the production’s highlights.
Mr. Bowling’s supporting team of artists can’t be praised highly enough. Young, talented Tom Vendafreddo once again does double duty, both as musical director, as well as playing the keyboard, while conducting the 17-piece Paramount orchestra. Multitalented choreographer Rhett Guter creates an array of astounding, high-spirited dance numbers. Sally Dolembo and Katie Cordts’ costume creations and wig & makeup designs capture the Roosevelt Era with color and style. And scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec, whose eye-popping set for Paramount’s “Les Miserables” earned him a well-deserved Jeff Award, outdoes himself. With this striking, impressive theatrical environment, the audience is treated to a two-level Midwestern bungalow that, at times, moves toward the audience, revolves and splits apart. Ralphie’s schoolroom features the typical scholastic furnishings, but is crowned with slick animated projections, by media designer Michael Stanfill.
This much-anticipated holiday show, one of the first regional productions of this 2013 Tony nominated musical, doesn’t disappoint. Elegantly and imaginatively produced, Nick Bowling’s production sparkles with energy and dazzles with talent. It also reminds us of why the holidays are so important. Here is a finely-staged toe-tapping musical, brimming with heart, love and memories. It’s not only a beautifully nostalgic tribute to a more innocent time, it’s a reminder of the importance of family values. Here, nestled in Aurora, is a high caliber, entertaining couple of hours that is bound to get everyone into the Christmas spirit.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 25-January 3 by Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-896-6666 or by going to www.ParamountAurora.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.