If you’re like me, and have practically every line of director Bob Clark’s 1983 holiday film classic “A Christmas Story” embedded deep in your cerebellum, then taking in “A Christmas Story, The Musical,” now playing at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, might require an adjustment period.
The film, which is narrated by radio personality Jean Shepherd and based on his book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” (from which the musical also draws), has such indelible performances and a singularly calm, yet quietly subversive tone that it remains, all these decades later, a truly unique comedic object.
“A Christmas Story, The Musical” is a much more run-of-the-mill affair — especially the mostly forgettable songs, written by “The Greatest Showman” duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
‘A Christmas Story’
Still, like Frosty the Snowman’s old silk hat, there is undeniably some magic in this show.
Whatever the story suffers in the move from screen to stage — and it loses a lot — even diehard fans of the movie eventually will be able to settle in and enjoy the musical.
It helps immensely that director Scott Weinstein and a game, likable cast infuse every moment of this production with just the right amount of Christmas cheer.
Anyone familiar with the movie knows the story. Growing up in Depression-era Indiana, young Ralphie Parker (played this night by Keegan Gulledge, who shares the role in alternating performances with Kavon Newman) longs for nothing more than a Red Ryder BB gun, even though his mother (and his teacher and pretty much every other adult in his life) warns him that he’ll “shoot his eye out.”
As Ralphie schemes to acquire said rifle, the story ambles through vignettes that include the problem of a warm tongue on an ice-cold flagpole, a “major award” that’s revealed to be an obnoxiously “sexy” lamp and the relative taste of different brands of soap.
The problem is that musical theater and “A Christmas Story” make for uncomfortable bedfellows. It’s not unlike how Pasek and Paul’s monster Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen” was adapted disastrously into a movie. In that case, it turned out that getting cinematically up-close and personal with dear Evan didn’t do him or the show any favors.
But that kind of wow factor only serves to take Shepherd’s wry observations and blow them up until they have the size and subtlety of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float. In the play’s more human-sized moments, that outsized theater-kid energy doesn’t suit the material.
Despite a show saddled with these weaker passages, Sarah Reinecke and Lorenzo Rush Jr. give lovely performances as Ralphie’s parents that balance the occasional wackiness with real pathos. When the latter leads a chorus of dancing lamps, it’s a genuine delight.
And that’s where this production really shines: in those chorus-of-dancing-lamps-type moments in which Ralphie’s float-sized flights of fancy give Weinstein and company the opportunity to get big, get silly and go old-school.
When Ralphie starts imagining himself the hero of a Wild West shoot-em-up extravaganza in “Ralphie to the Rescue” or as the target of 1920’s gangland mafiosos — led by his teacher (Jenna Coker-Jones) — in “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” the show ignites with giddy, crackling glee.
Those numbers also feature the show’s true standouts: its gaggle of absolutely knockout child performers.
For the adult chorus members, the highlight is their turn as a horde of cantankerous department store elves and a drunken Santa (Jackson Evans).
As the narrator/Mr. Shepherd, Kevin McKillip brings a deft comedic timing as he yo-yos between wise observer and Ralphie’s inner monologue. McKillip’s performance does take a bit of getting used to, if only because his voice as Shepherd sounds more like a football play-by-play announcer than the actual Shepherd’s jocular purr. But that’s the show in microcosm.
“A Christmas Story, The Musical” is not “A Christmas Story” the movie. Weinstein and his team have clearly kept that in mind and made the most of it. I’d recommend that you do the same.