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Monday, December 11, 2023

F3Stage Review: A Christmas Story: The Musical makes a bold, beguiling bow on the Los Angeles stage

Film Flam Flummox

Given the original source film's ubiquity every holiday season (thanks to TBS and TNT) and a heightened profile thanks to a Fox live telecast production in 2017, to say nothing of the wide acclaim and Tony nominations its Broadway run received no less than ten years ago, it had been a bit perplexing to me that A Christmas Story: The Musical still has not had quite carved out the nationwide profile that some other holiday season shows have enjoyed, for instance How the Grinch Stole Christmas, White Christmas, and even the more recent Elf: The Musical. The key phrase there is "had been," for Center Theatre Group's production now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre shows why it has not been widely mounted: this titanically theatrical (in every sense) take on such a modest film is a big, bold extravaganza that only an ambitious theater company has any prayer of doing justice -- and Center Theatre Group has passed the considerable challenge with flying, festive colors.

The humble nature of the source material is initially reflected on the stage first by the snow globe-styled custom curtain and proscenium, and then the entrance of the evening's narrator, author Jean Shepherd (Chris Carsten), who takes a seat at a microphone for a radio show and sets the scene of a reminiscence of an especially eventful holiday season in 1940s Indiana. But once the curtain rises for the big opening number "It All Comes Down to Christmas," director Matt Lenz (who has also helmed a seasonal touring production of the show that has run for most of the last ten years) blares big Broadway buoyancy, all the more fitting given its depiction of the hustle and bustle of the holiday shopping frenzy. Even once the focus closes in on our protagonists, the Parker family, namely 9-year-old Ralphie (Kai Edgar, who powerfully displays quite the set of lungs), the action shifts to a most impressively detailed two-level home replica, the first of many extravagant yet practical sets from scenic designer Walt Spangler.

"Extravagant yet practical" actually works as a nutshell description for the entirety of the show as a whole as it skillfully balances stage production pizazz with more substantive issues of story and, above all, character. As with the film, while Ralphie's Christmas wish for a BB gun is the central concern, Joseph Robinette's book unfolds in a largely episodic manner, with the run time filled with various vignettes involving Ralphie, his younger brother Randy (Henry Witcher, their mother (Sabrina Sloan), and their father (Eric Peterson), somewhat affectionately referred to as The Old Man. The natural chemistry between the actors is a massive two-fold benefit. Their rapport not only convincingly sell÷ the family relationship(s) but also the everyday, almost mundane, relatable authenticity of these low stakes yet childhood-memorable incidents: Ralphie absent-mindedly uttering a curse word in front of his father; a classmate getting his tongue stuck on a flagpole; and so forth. It all feels like an intimate peek into one's wistful memories, even within such a heightened context.

....and do the proceedings ever get heightened. The opening number is just a warm-up for the even more elaborate, quite surprisingly so, numbers that later follow, both in their sheer scale and the showtuney grandiosity of this early score from now-stage-and-screen sensations Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. (So far removed from their now-trademark, now-familar contemporary pop sound is this score that I thought there had to have been a composing collaborator here; not so.) But as huge -- and hugely choreographed, by Warren Carlyle -- as these numbers get, they are firmly rooted in the characters and, crucially, their personal perspectives. "Ralphie to the Rescue," set during a classroom daydream in which he visualizes all the big adventures he'll have while armed with his object of desire, brims with the over-the-top make believe of a child during a play date. Even more over-the-top is "A Major Award," The Old Man's ode to the infamous leg lamp that adorns the show's key art. The idea that such a booby prize can be considered by anyone to be, well, a major award is absurd, and accordingly, Lenz and Carlyle run with it (leg lamp kick line, anyone?). But underlying the ridiculousness is The Old Man's genuine giddiness at winning something for the first time in his life, and so it all somehow rings true. Perhaps the biggest showstopper of them all is what at first looks like a throwaway, when the oft-repeated adult response to Ralphie's Christmas wish -- "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" -- is musicalized in most spectacular fashion. Led by Ralphie's teacher Miss Shields and backed by an insanely talented troupe of tap dancing kids (no doubt another obstacle that keeps the show from being produced more widely), the jazzy, mob speakeasy-style setting may glancingly seem to be a go-big-or-go-home stretch, but it reflects Ralphie's overblown yet kid-appropriate frustrations. When it comes to him getting his coveted Red Ryder BB gun, he feels as if it's him against the world, a little guy at the mercy of one intimidating, all-controlling syndicate that brashly rubs -- or, rather, taps? -- it in his face.

But for all those massively showy scenes, the overwhelming feeling walking out of A Christmas Story: The Musical is borne from its gentle sentiment. A sense and sensation of heart should be central to any family-targeted Christmas story, and even with all its considerable bells and whistles, this production never loses sight of that.

Center Theatre Group's production of A Christmas Story: The Musical is now running at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles through Sunday, December 31.

Sabrina Sloan, Henry Witcher,
Kai Edgar, and Eric Petersen in
A Christmas Story: The Musical
(photo by Craig Schwartz Photography)

(Special thanks to Center Theatre Group)

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