At the beginning of Thalian Association’s latest holiday production, “A Christmas Story,” now playing at Thalian Hall through December 17, Stuart Pike, who acts as narrator and adult Ralphie Parker, informs the audience the story he is about to tell isn’t necessarily his own: It’s everyone’s. Though it takes place in Depression-era Indiana, its grander focus is to showcase a snippet of childhood that shapes us and gives us pause of reflection and gratitude—a time when we realize our parents clothe, feed and nurture us, and sometimes make all our dreams come true.
With book by Joseph Robinette and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the musical version of the famed film classic—based on Jean Shepherd’s book, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash”—has all the iconic scenes that replay on our TVs in constant loop each Christmas Day. It’s quintessential Americana: a middle-class family eating dinner together nightly; an overworked dad who just wants a hot meal, some peace, a crossword puzzle, and maybe a little recognition for being alright; a doting mother who keeps the home tidy and kids happy, and is perfectly content in doing so; and the kids who, outside of saying a few curse words and getting into a schoolyard fight here and there, are well-mannered and respect their parents.
The kids in Thalian’s production are, without a doubt, the shining stars onstage. They make up the ensemble and heighten all the dream sequences of Ralphie’s desires. Of them, Riley Moore (Grover Dill) stands out in animated glory. As the right-hand bully to the famed Scut Farkus character (Max Iapalucci), Moore’s facial expressions and exaggerated actions give a true punch of drama to the minor role—not to mention her amazing tapping skills, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The real kid of the hour comes with the at-ease portrayal Jakob Gruntfest brings to Ralphie. Gruntfest is a natural onstage; his Ralphie combines enough fear of authoritative repercussions and wandering youthful spirit to endear him to the audience. Camden Martin as his brother, Randy, steals the hearts of everyone as an adorably goofy mama’s boy. The connection between the two shows a deep protective bond of sibling love that can’t be matched.
Of course, their precious parents instill such in them—and that’s the crux of “A Christmas Story” as a musical. No matter the dysfunction and mania families endure, there’s a privilege in having a core group to love and care for you as child. Stuart Pike’s ending monologue—which isn’t in the movie—wraps up the show with less comedy and more reverence. He focuses on the poignant nostalgia we have as adults looking back on our lives—at precious moments we may not recognize as special when they’re happening but impact us greatly years later.
Pike has a careful and moderate pace of rhythm to his narration. Aside from a few bumbles over words, he guides the show quite relaxedly. Inflections rise when he presents all the scenarios of his father, The Old Man, played by Mark Deese. Deese’s character isn’t the over-the-top flustered fella we’re used to seeing Darren McGavin play; he’s more of a middle-of-the-road everyman, whose gulability gets the best of him—which helps his production of “Major Award” be even more believable. With Emily Graham as Mother, the two are tender with their children, and Graham’s vocals in “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That” amplify such affection.
For all the sensitivity shone on the innocence of what a nuclear family means in America 70 or more years ago, the silliness and playful reverie of childhood really amps up the show as a musical. As an audience familiar with the film, we want to see the “triple-dog-dare-ya” scene, and the saving-the-teacher scene, and the sitting-on-Santa’s-lap scene, and the deranged-Easter-bunny scene. The musical hands them over in colorful exuberance. And the dance numbers in the show knock it out of the park, thanks to the lively choreography from Laura Brogdon Primavera. Primavera takes on the best number of the night, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” as Ralphie’s teacher, Ms. Shields, complete with fantastic tap dancing among a group of talented dancers—kids included, like Riley Moore—in a cabaret number swinging with attitude and sheer fun.
And the same can be said when the Parker family packs up the car and heads to Higbee’s for their annual tradition of a visit “Up on Santa’s Lap.” The ensemble as snarky little elves showcase the weird ways we celebrate a season, including sitting on an old (sometimes drunken) man’s lap to ask for gifts. It’s an idea I latch onto well, having been scared of Santa as a child myself. These actors pull off the reason why: Their faux merriment is an underpin for all their pent-up frustration of dealing with snotty-nosed kids asking for things. And they nail it, especially Jay Zadeh as a snide Santa.
The scene also proves one of the most colorful and effective sets throughout the night. For the most part, the set show doesn’t really scream Depression era; some of the props and set dressings could have been amped up to take on the time period more effectively. But when we see Santa’s throne tower high in red and green, all is forgiven. “A Christmas Story” must have a slide attached to the throne, so Santa’s boot fits effectively over Ralphie’s face as the child stops his exit from Old Saint Nick. The slow-motion sound effects of the ensemble voices and stall of their actions make it even grander.
It is such a joy to see this show right now in the midst of the holidays. But it’s even better for adults to allow this to be an introduction for children to learn about the power of live theatre. Though it’s there to entertain primarily, a show like this will prove its message clear: Parents, one day your children may look back on that one night you took them to Thalian and realize how special of a holiday it really was.