clockwise from left: Brianna Gantswig, Jasper Davenport, Michael Norman, & Paul Nobrega. photo: Broadway in Louisville.
A Christmas Story The Musical
Based on the movie A Christmas Story written by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, & Bob Clark
Music & lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Book by Joseph Robinette
Directed Matt Lenz
Review by Kathi E. B. Ellis
Entire contents copyright © 2018 by Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved.
This week’s Broadway Series production ushers in the holiday season with the stage adaptation of the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story. It took almost three decades for the musical to come into being, hitting Broadway November 2012. The perennial television favorite is a nostalgic stroll through small-town northern Indiana circa 1940. And a new tradition is developing with recent years’ seasonal tours of A Christmas Story The Musical.
The touring production closely mimics the visuals of the Broadway production, and these conjure up imagined pasts of large Santa displays in stores, small-town schools replete with bullies, the family Oldsmobile, the family dinner time, and more. All framed in a set that suggests an iconic snow globe. Conceptually the design elements reflected a tension between traditional musical theatre practices (e.g. short scenes in front of a curtain) and the technological capabilities of today (e.g. projections) so that the occasional interjections of today’s technology drew attention to, for example, Christmas trees handled by almost-hidden actors rather than controlled remotely.
The children’s ensemble is energetically enthusiastic, handling the choreography with great aplomb. A special mention to the extended tap number in the fantasy speak-easy sequence in Act Two with Wyatt Oswald is particularly impressive. Opening night saw Michael Norman (Ian Shaw alternates) as Ralphie. Norman has an impressive belt and handles all of Ralphie’s shenanigans with the confidence of an old timer. Brother Randy, played by Jasper Davenport, manages to be adorably cute and a brat in equal measure, embracing his comedic sequences with the same confidence.
The adult characters in the story are less central than the brothers and their friends and foes. Paul Nobrega (The Old Man) and Brianna Gantsweg (Mother) inhabit relatively stereotypical roles of a not-too-bright, hands-off father and a Mom who does it all (“What Mothers Do”.) Mimicking the movie convention of narration. Chris Carsten steps into the role of Jean Shepherd, aka adult Ralphie, who wrote the original books on which the movie was based. Carsten is a jovial guide to his younger self’s Christmas experience, but the conceit of a narrator here feels heavy-handed; what can be handled with a voice over on film, is clunky when an actual body is inserted into the relived memories.
A special shout out to Hoss and Stella who stole the show as the Bumpkus Hounds!
Some mid-20th-century references feel quaint or uneasy in the second decade of the 21st century. We can all enjoy the cultural reference of Chinese restaurants being the only place to eat out at Christmas, but the cultural stereotypes embodied in that scene are uncomfortable in 2018. The nods to Mom being much smarter than Dad felt imposed on a storyline that originally felt no sense of irony about the central home-making role of women in 1940.
Nonetheless, the fidelity of the storyline adaptation – most of Ralphie’s efforts to get the famous Red Ryder BB gun are translated from the movie into book scenes and musical numbers – is a reason that this production is popular on the holiday circuit. And it was encouraging to see so many families in the audience bringing boys, and girls, to see the live version of a movie that many see year after year in their homes; seeing children their own age perform at an impressive level. Here’s hoping those young audiences return to other shows and that maybe some of them will be inspired to participate in live theatre.
A Christmas Story
November 27 – December 2, 2018
PNC Broadway In Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Kathi E.B. Ellis is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and a member of Lincoln Center and DirectorsLabChicago. She has attended the La MaMa Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding southern artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for South Florida theatre’s Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and part of ShoeString Productions, an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.