Humorist Jean Shepherd left us in 1999 but his folksy memories of being a child in Indiana at Christmas time live delightfully on in A Christmas Story: The Musical. Now making its Baltimore debut inside the gilded gift-wrapping of the Hippodrome Theatre, this amounts to a glorious, stage-wise present to nostalgic children of all types and sizes.
For those who prefer unvarnished history to nostalgia: Jean Shepherd’s stories grew out of an oralist tradition, mostly over radio station WOR in New York. He briefly hosted The Tonight Show before Jack Paar took over, and comedian Jerry Seinfeld named his third child Shepherd in his honor.
Most of the world, however, knows Jean Shepherd through his transcribed recollections in books like In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and via his screenplay for the much-loved 1983 MGM movie A Christmas Story.
This lively stage adaptation of the latter was developed in regional theaters, with music and lyrics ultimately provided by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.(their musical Dear Evan Hansen opened on Broadway to rave reviews). It had a short Broadway bow in 2012 and has been touring nationally during the holidays ever since.
There is no doubt a song in someone’s trunk somewhere called “Decoder Ring,” which explores all the garbled messages sent to kids by adults in our crazy consumerist culture. But thankfully that one did not make it into this blessedly non-political offering.
Just about every other familiar plot point from the movie, however, is up there on stage, most of them developed in time-honored musical fashion.
Little Ralphie (Austin Molinaro), for starters, rhapsodizes over his ultimate Christmas wish for a “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun.” With it, he can live large like the cowboy heroes at the movies, protecting his family from the likes of kidnappers, anarchists and bank robbers (“Ralphie to the Rescue”).
His father, referred to simply as The Old Man (Christopher Swan), expresses his dream of being accepted by his Indiana neighbors as “The Genius of Cleveland Street.” His tenacity is rewarded with “A Major Award,” much to his wife’s chagrin.
Mother (Susannah Jones) is grateful for her family and she sings of the happiness she takes in “What a Mother Does.” The melody and structure of her other solo, “Just Like That,” though, makes her sound like she just wandered in from a Sondheim show.
Everyone who loves the classic holiday film will know what’s going on here just from the song titles in the program: “Sticky Situation,” “Up on Santa’s Lap” and “Before the Old Man Comes Home.”
For me, that makes the rare moments when the show breaks free in its own flight of fancy all the more cherished. Ralphie’s nightmare scenario is given a lavish production number called “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” led by the suddenly uninhibited school marm Miss Shields (Angelica Richie). This one pops out of Ralphie’s subconscious in the form of a “forbidden” speakeasy dream sequence in which his school mates form a dancing chorus line behind him and a pint-sized dynamo named Lucas Marinetto earns a solid ovation with his pyrotechnic display of tap dancing pizzazz.
Director Matt Lenz and Choreographer Warren Carlyle both elevate the entertainment all evening with professional flair.
The settings are especially well conceived, beginning with the homey two-story interior of the Parker house, but also in the exterior locations, sometimes taking place like a vision in a giant snow globe courtesy of the original Broadway Scenic Designs of Walt Spangler.
Finally, a word must be said for Chris Carsten as our ingratiatingly rumpled narrator, Jean Shepherd. Carson moves from his memories behind the microphone at WOR to gradually become Ralphie’s surrogate spokesman in much of the action on stage.
Carsten brings Shepherd’s world to life and is just about as genial a holiday spirit as one could wish for. That also goes for this wonderful production as a whole. It makes a welcome new alternative to all the tried-and-true chestnuts in the Christmas season repertoire.
Running Time: About two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
A Christmas Story: The Musical conplays through December 11, 2016, at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center -12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online.