By Barry Reszel
When one decides to add “The Musical” to the title of an iconic, beloved holiday film in order to infuse it with the added dimensions of live song and dance, audiences beg for them heed this advice: “Don’t fudge it up.”
Only, the advice givers don’t say “fudge.”
Luckily for Chicagoland musical theatre audiences, the brilliant creative folks at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre heed well. Their thoroughly enjoyable production of A Christmas Story: The Musical does, first and foremost, what it must—it stays true to the 1983 cult classic film that spawned a 2000 play and this 2013 Tony-nominated musical.
Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle? Check.
“I can’t put my arms down?” Done.
“Fra-GEE-leh! It must be Italian!?” Yep.
Flag pole scene? Director Nick Bowling succumbs to the coup de grace of all dares, the sinister triple-dog-dare…and it’s in.
Bad Santa and sketchy elves? Uh-huh.
Bumpus dogs? Woof!
“You’ll shoot your eye out!?” The trifecta: Mother. Teacher. Santa.
So to answer the most important question…yes, those patrons who love Jean Shepherd‘s slice of Midwestern life Christmas tale will revel in Paramount’s whiz-bang homage-plus version. (For those who want it, a plot summary and production history of the musical may be read here.)
Bowling’s handsome ensemble of more than 30 features perfectly cast leads and terrific vocals. Some fun choreography by Rhett Guter and lovely period and seasonal costuming by Sally Dolembo complement Paramount’s typically fabulous full orchestra under the direction of Tom Vendafreddo and the best sets in Chicagoland theatre by Jeffrey D. Kmiec.
Philip Earl Johnson is simply terrific as narrator Shepherd. Looking like a young John Boehner, he perfectly executes an endearing omniscient point of view while telling the story of his younger self. The only flaw baked into this character is the collective fault of Joseph Robinette (book), Benj Pasek (music) and Justin Paul (lyrics)—the audience never gets to hear him sing.
That’s thankfully not true of the show’s other three leads. Young Michael Harp, who shined in Drury Lane’s spring production of Billy Elliot, is a wonderful Ralphie who confidently carries the majority of the production’s vocals. Michael Accardo does Darren McGavin‘s “Old Man” character proud and features a wonderfully dulcet singing voice when offered the opportunity.
The best songs in the book and strongest character enhancement (from movie to stage) belong to Ralphie’s mom, wonderfully portrayed by versatile triple threat and four-time Jeff winner Danni Smith. Her “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That” are by far the loveliest in a songbook that could use a few more memorable tunes. And her interactions with Accardo and their two boys are tender and true. It’s only fitting her work in this production helps Smith achieve full Equity status.
A pedestrian score does not mean this production fails to offer memories. The opening “It All Comes Down to Christmas,” the showstopping “A Major Award” and the tap-laden “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” featuring Ericka Mac as Miss Shields and the kids in the ensemble, all work to put smiles on audience members’ faces.
That said, it’s certainly fair to ask the question of whether homespun holiday storytelling set in pre-television era Indiana is truly enhanced by a kick line, even when that kick line is really, really good.
The answer again, is yes.
It is enhanced.
And even if this enhancement might be unnecessary, some might say completely unnecessary, consider it a paradigm for the season and enjoy.
“A Christmas Story, The Musical” runs through January 3, 2016, at Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. Show times are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $41 to $56. Tickets and information are available on line here, or by phone at (630) 896-6666.