Enjoy holiday nostalgia with an exuberant “A Christmas Story: the Musical” at Marriott Theatre

Christmas season is a time of year when we most enjoy the comfort of the familiar, a fact that explains, perhaps, why the approximately thirty millionth adaptation of A Christmas Carol, this one featuring Ryan Reynolds as, I assume, the youngest and best-looking Ebenezer Scrooge in history, is coming to Apple+ next week. (Not to mention the 45th annual production of a stage adaptation of that book opening next week at the Goodman Theatre…and, yes, I’ll be there.) Whether it is this timeless Dickens tale, claymation TV specials and Charlie Brown from the 60s, or a favorite Christmas movie, we watch them again and again at this time. (That certainly explains why I can’t go through the season without driving my husband crazy by watching “Love, Actually” yet again.)

This nostalgic comfort of the familiar also explains the ongoing craze for turning popular movies into theatrical musicals. (I’ll bet you can think of several without even trying.) And there are even a handful of musicals adapted from hit Christmas movies. One of these shows, which of course have a tendency to be produced at this time of year, has now landed at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire: the faithful (too faithful?) 2012 musical adaptation of the 1983 film adaptation of A Christmas Story (itself an adaptation of several different Jean Shepherd monologues). While not a mega-hit like, say, Elf (which also has been made into a musical…of course), A Christmas Story, a low-key comedy about a late depression-era family from northern Indiana, its humorous idiosyncrasies, and one particular holiday season, manages to strike nostalgic notes even among those who were born long after the story takes place. And by three decades after its release, the genial tale of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker, his little brother Randy, their hard-working mom, and their permanently irked father had developed nostalgia of its own; hence, A Christmas Story: the Musical.

I’m not quite sure how many layers of “the familiar” that makes, but it’s clearly enough to make A Christmas Story into a Christmas staple. Memorable movie moments like “the old man’s” struggles with his furnace and his neighbor’s dogs (along with his constant, inventive profanities), the “major award” leg lamp he wins in a contest, Ralphie’s use of the F-word, his friend Flick getting his tongue stuck to a flagpole, Randy dressed in such a massive snowsuit that he can’t even lower his arms, Ralphie wearing a pink Christmas bunny outfit (there’s a sort of “logical” reason, I swear!), the terrifying visit to see Santa at Higbee’s department store, and many others have become as familiar to us as the official Red Ryder carbine action bb gun, with a compass in the stock and “this thing that tells time” is to Ralphie himself. And they are all faithfully reproduced in the musical, though sometimes they now include songs.

The songs here are fun, though they are not as catchy as in some musicals. You may not leave singing “It All Comes Down to Christmas” or “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” but numbers like the latter and “Ralphie to the Rescue” perfectly capture the kind of daydreams young kids might have as they imagine themselves to be the action heroes of their own lives. The voices are uniformly outstanding, led by young Keegan Gulledge (or, in some performances, Kavon Newman) as Ralphie. Gulledge, whom I saw, possesses not only a fine voice but also the acting skill to portray the character’s emotional reactions to a variety of challenges including bullies as well as the aforementioned bunny suit.

As the elder Parkers, Sarah Reineke and Lorenzo Rush, Jr. are simply perfect. Rush shows us the kind of “old man” whose grumpiness comes from the never-ending sameness of his life as well as the helplessness of dealing with neighbors’ dogs every time he comes in or out of his house. But he suffuses his Old Man with a true inner life that comes out in his habit of immersing himself in crossword contests and imagining himself “the genius of Christopher Street”—we easily see where Ralphie gets it from. Rush’s performance also helps us to see the father who immediately takes sympathy on his son for the bunny suit and secretly buys him the bb gun that everyone thinks so dangerous. (He had one as a child too.) He is more than the often frightening personage who Randy at one point believes might “kill Ralphie” for a very Old Man-like string of mumbled faux-profanities unleashed as the boy beat up the town bully: gruff as he is, the Old Man, as played by Rush, has a good heart.

Reineke’s Mother, the forever-supportive, oft-overlooked core and strength of this household, is a dynamic, emotionally satisfying portrayal. Even in the first scenes, in which she snaps at her boys for not getting ready for school, Reineke’s expressions are a reminder of the real nature of a mother’s love. She keeps everything going, no matter what, even if it takes playing “piggy” with Randy to get the recalcitrant child to eat his dinner. (The Old Man is aghast, but Mother knows how to prioritize her child’s health over propriety.) Her plaintive paean to her position in the family, “What a Mother Does,” is as full of love as it is can possibly be while simultaneously acknowledging how thankless her life is. The moment when Ralphie realizes that his relationship with her has suddenly matured and changed is the best small acting moment of the show for both Reineke and Gulledge.

The movie was narrated by Jean Shepherd, so obviously the musical must be as well. Here, Shepherd is played by multitalented Kevin McKillip, one of the most recognizable stars on the Chicago stage. His own melodious radiolike voice, not unlike Shepherd’s, serves him well here, and he revels in imitating the childlike physical and emotional responses that Ralphie has to his experiences. Watching him is a master class in comic acting and surrendering ego to a role. The moment when he portrays one of those vicious neighbor dogs is utterly phenomenal.

There is also a very talented cast of children here, besides the main family, all of whom are excellent both as a group and individually. (Take note of them each as they freeze at certain moments: their positions and expressions will blow you away.) Two of them, Braden Crothers as bully Scut Farkus and Elin Joy Seiler as his “toady,” Grover Dill, are truly outstanding. In addition to this children’s ensemble, there is also an adult one, with similar standouts including Jackson Evans’ turn as the grumpiest Santa ever and, especially, Jenna Coker-James as Ralphie’s teacher (and featured singer in an imagined scene taking place in a speakeasy) Miss Shields.

Director Scott Weinstein and choreographer Tiffany Krause coalesce all of this into a joyful and exuberant production, taking solid advantage of the Marriott’s rising stage and Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s wonderful (and elaborate for this theatre-in-the-round) set. One complaint? No one seems to have clocked the fact that several consecutive second act scenes take place in the same corner of the stage, facing in, leaving those seated nearby (like me and my party) watching backs and straining to see blocked characters for far too long. It’s hard to complain about anything, though, in a show that includes an elaborate fantasy sequence with multiple dancing leg lamps.

Is it too faithful to the movie? That’s hard to say, though pretty much everything here is taken straight from the screen. I suppose that’s up to everyone’s individual preferences. As for me, although I knew everything that was coming in this, my first viewing of the musical, it all felt like…coming home. The show’s warmth, comedy, and energy make it probably as classically nostalgic a Christmas staple as the film it is based on…and that’s a strong recommendation: there is, indeed, something endearing about the familiar, especially at this time of year.

Tickets for A Christmas Story are available from Marriott Theatre and at 888-729-4718. It is playing at 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, through Jan 1. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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