By Barry Reszel
2016 Lake Forest, Illinois, is a lifetime and a world away from 1940 Hammond, Indiana, even by its fictionalized name, Hohman.
And therein lies the everlasting, some might say growing, charm of A Christmas Story, based on a piece of Jean Shepherd‘s 1966 autobiographical, slice of Americana book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.
Most come to the work first via the ad nauseam holiday showings of the beloved 1983 movie narrated by Shepherd himself. The story follows the December exploits of young Ralphie Parker (played by Peter Billingsley), growing up in a blue collar town during the depression dreaming of his ideal Christmas gift, a “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun.” His home is overseen by a cranky dad (Darren McGavin) and doting mother (Melinda Dillon) as Ralphie, kid brother Randy and Ralphie’s classmates count down the days to Christmas.
The stage musical version, which remains quite true to the movie, opened in Kansas City in 2009 includes a 2012 Broadway engagement and a 2013 Manhattan revisit. Regional productions and seasonal national tours have picked up Shepherd’s baton and run with it since.
This year’s Chicagoland staging by Lake Forest’s Citadel Theatre includes a number of standout performances, beginning with Citadel Artistic Director Scott Phelps‘ uncanny imitation of Shepherd as the story’s narrator.
Donovan Martin is a wonderful Ralphie (he shares the role with Ryan Carlson at alternate performances) whose acting and vocal range are terrific. Chase Peacock‘s and Traci Cidlik‘s turn as the old man and mother are well acted and believable (Cidlik’s “What a Mother Does” is particularly lovely). Carter Graf is a fine young actor playing Randi. And Kayla Boye shows off her sexy triple threat talent as schoolteacher Miss Shields, particularly in, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.”
Director Robert D. Estrin‘s large surrounding adult ensemble is vocally strong and includes some terrific dancers. The youth ensemble is less so, particularly in Act 2. And in all, the smallish stage at Lake Forest High School’s West Campus is a bit crowded; with an intimate room seating less than 150, the production would be better served with a smaller cast.
While the visual effects of the set design are handsomely detailed, set changes at opening were loud and clumsy, and many set pieces seem terribly fra-gee-lay, sending out an amateurish vibe. So, too, Music Director Gina Lyden Masland with Eric Lato on guitar and Mike Walsh on percussion offer adequate but thin orchestrations of the songbook that’s cute and story-advancing without achieving memorable.
Fans of the movie will certainly enjoy this generally even-keeled production with original lines like: “In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”
This show’s sweet depiction of a simpler time and place, a world and a lifetime away from 2016 Lake Forest, might be just what musical theatre patrons need.
Citadel Theatre presents “A Christmas Story: the Musical” through December 18 at 300 S. Waukegan Road, Lake Forest. More information and tickets are available here.