The songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul will probably long be associated with the angst-riddled Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen. But five years before it arrived on Broadway, they wrote a whimsical adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s look back on his youth at holiday time, A Christmas Story.
True, little Ralphie Parker obsesses over getting a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas, and his father, a/k/a The Old Man, is desperate to win a prize – any prize – in a crossword puzzle contest. But that is about as dire as matters get in this wryly nostalgic tale.
Fans of the 1983 movie on which the show is based -– now a perennial favorite on television at year’s end — will recognize those two plot threads, plus the many others which the stage show faithfully recreates.
Ralphie (Michael Norman, veteran of the show’s national tour) goes to Higbee’s Department Store to ask Santa for the air rifle, but gets tongue-tied when he meets the old gift-giver? Check. Farkus takes up a double-dog dare and gets his tongue stuck frozen to a flagpole? Check. Ralphie is embarrassed into wearing the pink bunny suit he receives, instead of the air rifle, for Christmas? Check.
Longtime followers of Slow Burn Theatre Co. will note that A Christmas Story is a far cry from the edgy musicals on which the company first forged its reputation. The show is distinctly family-friendly and, while often satirical, it eventually arrives at a warm and fuzzy celebration of the title holiday. With a dozen or so kids in the cast – enough to require the services of Child Wrangler Samantha O’Donnell – director/choreographer Patrick Fitzwater has his hands full, but he does get them singing and dancing frequently.
Unlike most musicals, the Pasek-Paul score only occasionally advances the slim plot. More often than not, they accompany fantasy production numbers, like “Ralphie to the Rescue!,” his triumph over assorted bad guys with his trusty BB gun at his side. Or particularly “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” a taunting admonishment over the inevitable result of receiving the coveted BB gun, led by Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields (Lindsey Corey) who lets down her hair and dances about very unschoolmarmishly.
A Christmas Story begins with Shepherd (Matthew Korinko, in sweater vest, glasses and toupee, looking an awful lot like Roger Ebert) intoning the beginning of his Christmas memoir into the microphone of his radio broadcast. Then he narrates his tale, walking among the show’s characters, often echoing Ralphie’s movements, linking himself to his former self.
Accurate of not, Shepherd recalls his parents in sitcom terms. The Old Man (Tony Edgerton) is a father-knows-least type who goes rhapsodic when informed by telegram that he has won “A Major Award.” Mother (Amy Miller Brennan) rules the roost, fixing the messes that Ralphie and his dad get themselves into, as well as singing the score’s two sincere numbers (“What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That”). They are first-rate and Norman has all the right moves as Ralphie, although his line readings render most of his dialogue incomprehensible.
Spend a few minutes before the show begins taking in the nostalgic Christmas tchotchkes that scenic designer April Soroko depicts around the stage proscenium. And her sets keep coming, from the Parkers’ Midwestern living room to Ralphie’s classroom to Santa’s perch and downward slide exit at Higbee’s. Perennial Slow Burn costumer Rick Pena has been a busy boy designing and making the wardrobe for the sizeable cast, particularly for those many fantasy numbers. The key drawback to the production, however, is Slow Burn’s use of recorded music tracks, a step backwards for the company.
Still, in the same way that the movie of A Christmas Story is a genuine antidote to Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, the musical version of the cherished holiday film is far more welcome than any incarnation of A Christmas Carol or White Christmas.
A CHRISTMAS STORY, Broward Center Amaturo Theatre, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Through Sun., Dec. 29. $49-$62. Call 954-462-0222 or visit www.slowburntheatre.org.