If it were easy to make cult-classic movies, someone would have patented the formula long ago. Few people realized in 1983 when the movie “A Christmas Story” was released that we’d be watching it, more than 30 years later, in 24-hour marathons on cable.
Is the appeal of this nostalgic tale – set in a long-ago 1940 idyllic Midwest small town – the funny bits and catch-phrases? Certainly “You’ll shoot your eye out” has entered the common lexicon. So has the tongue-stuck-to-the-flagpole scene, the unveiling of the ugly leg lamp and, of course, the longing for the Red Ryder BB gun, a dream come true for its company’s marketing executives.
But there’s something deeper here. This is just me putting on my cult-classic thinking cap, but I think the secret of the movie’s appeal is the way it deftly balances the sweet haze of holiday sentimentality and the tart realization that no one truly achieves the Hallmark version of Christmas, except in your memories.
Can a song-and-dance musical do the same thing?
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Perhaps not perfectly – but still surprisingly well.
The warm and invigorating Good Company Players production of “A Christmas Story: The Musical” features most of the movie’s video-clip-worthy pop-culture moments, with just about every anticipated comic high point from the revered film represented. But a musical’s greatest strength is that it can take us places emotionally and comically that sometimes mere words can’t reach. This title, which opened on Broadway in 2012, is both wry and rousing, a nice combination.
For “Christmas Story” purists, it might be a bit jarring when the cast breaks into the opening number, “It All Comes Down to Christmas.” Rest assured: The gang’s all here, from Ralphie (Jonathan Aguirre, with a great voice), who wants a BB gun for Christmas more than anything, and his kid brother, Randy (Drake Murrill, with a sharp and promising stage presence) to Bad Santa (an amusing Shawn Williams), whose lap is more toxic than a nuclear-waste site. The narrative charts a familiar course, with some elements understandably happening offstage. (No visuals of the wild Bumpus hounds next door, just barking.)
A musical’s greatest strength is that it can take us places emotionally and comically that sometimes mere words can’t reach. This production is both wry and rousing, a nice combination.
This is no half-hearted musical: It’s a full-fledged version, complete with a bouncy and sweetly rendered score and lyrics (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) and expansive choreography (by Emily Pessano and Jessica Sarkisian). Even the gruff Old Man, aka Ralphie’s father (Teddy Maldonado, in one of the show’s strongest performance), sings and dances. Musical haters need not bother.
The only person who doesn’t do the traditional musical-theater thing is the narrator, author Jean Shepherd (an amiable Dan Pessano, who doles out just the right sliver of sentimentality), who tells Ralphie’s story in a series of flashbacks.
The production is nicely co-directed by Emily Pessano and Robert Sanchez, who have to cope with some long and complicated production numbers.
The show has fun with the funny bits, though at times the comic interludes feel a little rote. (The shoot-your-eye-out scene, for all the build-up, was underwhelming at the opening-night performance.) The production’s biggest overall flaw is its sort of checklist feel to some of the best-known pop-culture moments, without enough set-up or punch-line timing. If you’re familiar with the movie, you’ll be satisfied, but novices might wonder what the fuss is all about.
On the other hand, the comic master Laurie Pessano, as the cranky teacher Miss Shields, gives the show’s other standout performance, segueing from her taut classroom self into a series of loosey-goosey fantasy song-and-dance sequences culminating in the show-stopper “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.”
“Up on Santa’s Lap” is another comic and staging highlight, with the lead “elf” (Abigail Nolte) eager for the department store’s 9 p.m. closing time, offering sturdy laughs. (Seeing veteran actor Greg Ruud as a timeclock-punching elf is a recipe for a smile.)
David Pierce’s sets and Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes add a charming period feel. There were some opening-night wobbles, including dancing that wasn’t always up to crisp GCP standards (such as in the number “When You’re a Wimp.”) And I’m not sure what was going on opening night with Andrea Henrickson’s lighting design, but the effect was sub-par, with some characters, particularly Dan Pessano’s, being left entirely in the dark a few times. (Overall, I found some of the more “realistic,” non-fantasy sequences too dark and murky.)
But I’m sure the run, sure to be a popular one this holiday season, will firm up. While the comic moments are a big draw, the best parts of the show are when it digs into the characters’ emotional lives. Maldonado, whose vocals and acting are first-rate, gets a chance in the song “The Genius on Cleveland Street” to share his insecurities and dreams. And in a transcendent moment, Jessica Sarkisian, as Mother, sings a beautiful and heartfelt “Just Like That,” pondering how quickly these precious moments in her sons’ lives fly by.
This waltz with time is, in essence, the message of “A Christmas Story”: that the passage of years massages our memories. The mental wonderland thus created, which may or may not involve winter snow, is something that will be with us always.
For our “author,” looking back on it all, the chance to see his mother and father young once again, building traditions with their children, is the greatest Christmas gift of all.
A Christmas Story: The Musical
- Through Jan. 10
- Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave.
- www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-9494