5th Avenue Theater’s A Christmas Story, The Musical is a must-watch event of the holiday season. It is beyond charming, with that rare combination of spot-on acting, singing, set and costume design and everything in between.
A Christmas Story, The Musical written by Joseph Robinette, follows the trials and tribulations of young Ralphie Parker in his search for a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. Featuring music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose recent projects include Dogfight, James and the Giant Peach and NBC’s musical-about-a-musical Smash, the musical adaptation is based on the 1983 film of the same name which in turn was based on Jean Shepherd’s original collection of stories, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.
In the hands of director Brandon Ivie, an Issaquah native, the classic story is expanded into something beyond the film. The format of musical theater lends itself to the charming portrayal of the 1940s, but also to a more multi-dimensional and well-rounded depiction of the main characters. While Ralphie Parker and his brother Randy are the clear protagonists, both parents, the stoic teacher Miss Shields and the narrator, an older version of Ralphie, all get deeper characterization. Through the eyes of a child, even the inanimate and animal elements have major roles, and through innovative numbers and genius set design by Erik Holden, the snow, a flag pole, a BB gun, a janky-wheeled car, an infamous leg lamp and the delightful Bumpus’ dogs all emerge to full effect.
The cast of A Christmas Story, The Musical, are phenomenal. Mark Jeffrey James Weber is a fine singer (as evidenced last winter in the title role of Oliver!) and plays Ralphie Parker with aplomb. Kurt Beattie plays ‘older Ralphie’, the radio personality Jean Shepherd whose short stories were the inspiration for the motion picture. In the musical, Shepherd interacts with the set and the plot in a more tangible way, and draws the audience in with his humorous storytelling. Ralphie’s younger brother, Randy, is played by fourth-grader Brandon Oke, whose apt depiction of the stubborn boy leads to several moments of side-splitting laughter.
The ensemble of young actors playing the Parker children’s classmates (and bullies) are instantly endearing, and talented to boot. The ensemble singing of the younger members of the cast is exceptional, and while not technically the most challenging, the pure unison belting across registers more than makes up for it. The younger actors also perform somewhat challenging choreography and dazzle in a few of the imagined sequences, such as the 1930s speakeasy number “You’ll shoot your eyes out.”
The musical numbers by the parents of the Parker household elevate these characters from their motion picture counterparts. Jessica Skerritt’s warm vibrato and gentle demeanor endears the role of the mother in numbers such as “What a mother does” and Dane Stokinger portrays the ‘Old Man’ whose genius and worth is unacknowledged by society at large in more vulnerable soul-baring numbers such as “The genius on Cleveland Street.” Liz McCarthy impresses as Miss Shields with exemplary singing and dancing, especially in “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
A Christmas Story, The Musical portrays life in 1940s America with sentimental charm, but certain aspects—true to what was acceptable then—will feel a little retrograde if not downright troubling. Most of these situations are treated with empathy and care and a knowing sense of humor. Attention is given, for example, to the ways in which the mother holds things together, balances and negotiates between her husband and the children and deals with her husband’s mid-life crisis, while also affirming the auxiliary roles that women played at the time. Other aspects rely on camp to counteract what is most problematic. E.g. depictions of bullying (and Ralphie’s revenge) in a ‘Cowboys and Indians’ dream sequence, cultural references during the meal at an Asian restaurant and, finally, the image of a student wielding a gun in a school classroom in an effort to save his teacher and fellow students from the baddies. It doesn’t judge the past for being naïve, but it does reveal that the ‘simpler time’ was perhaps only more simplistic in its worldviews.
A strength of A Christmas Story, The Musical, is the audience’s familiarity with the original plot, which has become a contemporary classic. They seemed excited for upcoming moments in the plot, even before they happened, with knowing exclamations at the opening of ‘ominous’ new scenes such as the flagpole incident, the car ride and Santa’s workshop. Scene by scene, the crowd responded with rapturous applause. The musical is every bit as charming as the motion picture, if not more, and gives a well-developed stage portrayal of an American favorite, with exemplary acting, singing and dancing from the entire cast. For fans young and old, this is truly an event not to be missed.