There is no denying it: “A Christmas Story the Musical” is the best production I’ve seen all year. Wide-eyed grins took over the audience as local thespians brought the Parker family and their coterie of neighbors and community members to life through riotous scenes of hilarity, as made iconic in the 1983 movie. Based on Jean Shepherd’s famed story, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”—published in Playboy magazine in the ‘60s—this theatre production deserves to become a City Stage tradition as much as the famed TBS marathon that runs the movie every Christmas Day.
First off, it’s a perfect flick to transition to stage. It’s well-written with punchy lines, animated characters, a narrator already in place, and nostalgia through and through that make memories so real anyone can imagine living through America’s innocently treasured past. I worried its coloful scenes would lack the same verve within community theatre as a film budget or even Broadway could provide. City Stage Co. did not fail! Terry Collins’ set design is magnificent in its capacity to move between many scenes without fuss or distraction. Every perfectly placed prop defines the Depression era—from the old stove, refrigerator and radio, to the children’s school desks and Santa’s throne-and-slide at Higbee’s Department Store. Costumes remain simple in everyday wear and cheeky during all fantasy scenes. Not a hiccup reveals itself in evoking time and place of yesteryear.
Firing on all cylinders, the cast of “A Christmas Story the Musical” has been perfectly chosen. Director Debra Gillingham has selected people born to play the Parker family. More so, her pacing of the show keeps everyone engaged. The cast is so good, in fact, I could not decide upon a favorite character. I believed them all so much so I wanted to jump onstage and become an honorary family member.
J.R. Rodriguez as the Old Man transforms into the bulldog dad that little boys look up to and fear altogether. Every defeated action and enraged moment of stress he wears on his face becomes apparent with downward frown lines and furrowed brows. His zany obscenities—“dad gummit”—provide numerous laughs, especially in its unwanted domino effect, as apparent when Ralphie yells the expletive “fudge” as a result of learned behavior. Rodriguez shines brightest during “The Genius on Cleveland Street.” Boastful and proud, he dances like a bowed-up peacock at the thought of being more than just an everyday dad and husband—but someone who really is respected among his peers. His famed leg-lamp scene comes cleverly exaggerated with saucy dancers in fishnet stockings, lace lingeries and lamp shades atop their heads. It’s a perfect example of how taking a cult-classic scene from a film to a live stage can be enhanced with enjoyment.
The males display phenomenal acting chops in this show. Harper Peterson as Jean Shepherd (a.k.a. adult Ralphie)—the narrator reliving his favorite Christmas from a WOR radio show—simply astounds. The addition of Shepherd not just being a voice but a figure head in every scene, shadow-boxing his younger self, induces hunched-over laughter. Peterson is thoughtful, funny, warm, lovable, and just a joy to listen to and watch as he relives youth in small-town, Indiana. He truly becomes a raconteur who effectively brings words to life. I could watch Peterson dance on the sidelines and win against the robbers of his youth all the rest of my days. He embodies every man’s twinkling remembrance of childhood; it reminded me so much of my own father who can tell a tale of “Little Rascals”-like appeal with the best of them.
I didn’t think I’d be able to imagine another Ralphie other than Peter Billingsley, who played the movie’s character. Carson Holmes gives the iconic little boy new life. His portrayal not only plays to the heartstrings like a pro (“It All Comes Down to Christmas”), his actions and voice bumble, crack and explode like a child still wrestling youth yet getting a glimmer of manipulation into adulthood. His every school scene and daydream of being a hero highlights and threads the show to the nth degree. Alongside 10 or so extremely talented kids, they flit, fight, tap dance, and jump (thanks to perfectly executed choreography by Kendra Goehring-Garrett) through all of Ralphie’s reveries for that coveted Red Ryder BB Gun—with numerous costume changes included. The dream scenes are so successful.
Penny Kohut as Miss Shields walks the perfect line between strict teacher and fawning fan of Ralphie (“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”). The ensemble stands out so brightly that my eyes couldn’t decipher which to be in awe of most. They all carry as much zeal as any main character. Santa’s scene embodies their unified whole most supberly, as slow-motion actions of drinking elves and family chaos ensue faultlessly (“At Higbee’s,” “Up on Santa’s Lap”).
The sweeter, quieter and more reverent moments of the family’s heart-warming interactions come with exquisite compassion emoted from Heather Setzler as Mrs. Parker. Her kindness and patience rearing two little boys—and a husband, but especially a moaning, groaning, non-eating little brother, Randy (played by Abel Zuckerman with cheek-pinching adoration)—stuns and embraces the show’s main theme: Love, despite its hardships, always remain at a family’s core (“What a Mother Does”).
The show’s music adds to the story’s quippy dialogue and character development. More so, my 12-year-old companion and I left humming through the soundtrack the rest of the evening thanks to a zippy, impressive offstage orchestra led by Michael Lauricella.
I honestly cannot remember exiting a show over the past year and gushing about the excellence of live theatre as I did walking down the stairs of City Stage. My jaws hurt from smiling and laughing. Don’t waste a moment’s notice in catching this brilliant production; it will top your holiday season’s memory list.
A Christmas Story the Musical
City Stage • 21 N. Front St., 5th Floor
Nov. 28-30, Dec. 5-7
Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.