by Malcolm Gay
Who knew I was such a sap?
When the film version of A Christmas Story hit theaters back in 1983, I hardly took notice. I was about the same age then as the movie's star, Ralphie. But did I care? No. I was chasing my own versions of Ralphie's Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and a thingamajig that tells time.
Christmas passed, and I never gave Ralphie another thought. But there he was onstage this weekend at the Fox in the dreamy touring production of A Christmas Story, The Musical. And as he strapped on a brilliant pair of what looked white ostrich-feather chaps and matching hat for the show's infectious Western number, "Ralphie to the Rescue!" well, the decades fell away as the pining, whining, charming star, Colton Maurer, and his fellow kid actors revealed just how good life would be if only Ralphie could protect them with a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and a thingamajig that tells time.
"But Ralphie!" the adults say, returning him firmly from the exotic Alamo to humdrum Indiana, "You'll shoot your eye out!"
And therein lies the rub. Like the film version, A Christmas Story, The Musical follows Ralphie's Yuletide machinations to procure the coveted BB gun. The kid tries everything. Warning of grizzly bears in the neighborhood, he plants a seed of the idea with his long-suffering Mother (Susannah Jones) and his daffy Old Man (Christopher Swan). He writes an essay for his imperious teacher, Miss Shields (Avital Asuleen). He even goes to the season's source itself, a bibulous department store Santa.
Alas, his pleadings are futile, dismissed with with a curt, but Ralphie..."You'll shoot your eye out!"
With a book by Joseph Robinette and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, A Christmas Story, The Musical, handles the show's subplots with sometimes serviceable but often giddy, over-the-top musical numbers. So it is that when the Old Man's genius for crosswords is finally recognized with an award of a leg lamp, director Matt Lenz and choreographer Warren Carlyle deliver the raucous Rockettes-inspired "A Major Award" with the performers wielding leg lamps as triumphal prosthetics. When Ralphie's friend Flick (Christian Dell'Edera) freezes his tongue to the flagpole, the kids deliver the news via "Sticky Situation."
But the real showstopper (along with "Ralphie to the Rescue!") is the Capone-era number, "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out," with its Mafia suits, a vixen-like Miss Shields and its child tap dancers (with charming tap solo by Seth Judice). With live musical accompaniment led by music director John Tarbet, "Up on Santa's Lap" is all topsy-turvy yearning, and Jones delivers perhaps the show's most poignant moment with "Just Like That," a heartfelt tune about the fleeting moments of childhood.
Narrated by the amiable Chris Carsten as Jean Shepherd (the radio personality on whose stories and anecdotes the show is based), A Christmas Story, The Musical unfolds on Walter Spangler's ingenious and nostalgia-laden set – a giant snow globe of childhood memory that takes us everywhere from the Parker family home and the schoolyard, to the Wild West and speakeasys of Ralphie's imagination.
But Ralphie falls into despair as the big day approaches: his foul mouth, his pummeling of a schoolyard bully and his middling grades all point to a lump of coal in his stocking. But this isn't just any Christmas story. It's A Christmas Story, The Musical, and as Ralphie unpacks that final present, this heartwarming show reveals itself as the gift that it is.
A Christmas Story, The Musical Through January 4 at the Fox Theatre. Call 314-534-1111 or click here.
Follow RFT critic at large Malcolm Gay on Twitter @malcolmgay.