I’m All Through with Promises, Promises Now
I’m going to break the promise I made to Roy Miller.
Last week, Miller, the producer who discovered The Drowsy Chaperone, asked if I’d come to Hershey, Pennsylvania between Nov. 8-13 to see his new musical: A Christmas Story, based on the famed Jean Shepherd stories and film. “Not for review,” he stressed. “Just to see what you think.”
Alas, I’d already promised the week to various Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway shows. “I could come to a rehearsal,” I hinted, so he invited me to a Sunday night run-through. “Not for review,” he stressed again. “Just to see what you think.”
And so, I was off to do one of my favorite things: to see a musical in a genuine out-of-town tryout in a great big road house. The Hershey Theatre turned out to be a handsome one, with a stunning marble lobby and Byzantine and Venetian-styled architecture inside. And seeing its great big proscenium filled with a scrim that states “A Christmas Story” filled me with the excitement.
As it turned out, Sunday’s A Christmas Story was enduring a glorified tech rehearsal that started at 7:16 and broke exactly at 10:16 – for intermission. But I’m here to tell you that it was a thoroughly enjoyable three hours.
When producers make me promise in advance that I won’t review, I always say “Yes!” – and almost always remain mum afterward, because their shows often turn out to be embarrassments, disgraces or atrocities. But I’m breaking my promise to Miller because I have nothing but the best things to say about A Christmas Story. Shouldn’t you know how marvelous at least Act One is?
Joseph Robinette’s book closely follows the beloved 1983 film in which Shepherd homaged his small-town Indiana childhood. “The Old Man,” a/k/a Frank Parker, is still entering contests in hopes of winning a prize – and does, albeit a lamp that’s shaped like a leg. One young boy is “triple-dog-dared” to press his tongue against a frozen flagpole, and is then unable to extricate it.
But the main plot still has little Ralphie Parker desperately hoping that his Christmas gift from his parents will be “an official Red Ryder Range Model Carbine Action BB gun with a compass in the stock -- and this thing that tells time.”
Of course, today the idea of a gun being put in kid’s hands is more disconcerting. Director John Rando has wisely ameliorated the situation by almost always showing the gun in its cardboard box; thus, it seems to be less of a weapon.
The score comes courtesy of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, recent Michigan grads who impressed me mightily last year when their Edges played White Plains. There, each had contributed to a fine pop rock score with extraordinarily intelligent song ideas and lyrics. (One example of many: Two adult sisters find that they’ve grown apart, and while they rue the situation, they know there’s nothing they can do about it.)
Now, at least Act One of A Christmas Story shows a score that may not sound particularly late ‘30s-early‘40s (aside from a commercial for Higbee’s Department Store), but one that has spirit, style and melody. The opening song has Ralphie and all of Hohman, Indiana counting not just the days, but the minutes to Christmas. It’s a terrific reminder of when entire families looked forward to this holiday, and didn’t regard it as a coming-too-soon, don’t-have-time-for, expense-laden pain that so many do now.
A marvelous number sends “Ralphie to the Rescue,” when he fantasizes how he and his rifle will save his teacher’s life when she is abducted in a scenario that only a kid could imagine. Pasek and Paul have written an intoxicating cowboy song for the moment, and Ralphie gets to be clad in those funny and fluffy white feathery chaps that the more effete cowboys wore.
Now that he’s armed, Ralphie is able to force a villain off his (hobby) horse. Warren Carlyle choreographs it all very well, while Larry Blank’s marvelous orchestration echoes that country-western sound of yore. It’s “The Ghost Riders in the Sky” mixed with the wide-open, clean feel of Aaron Copland.
Meanwhile, “The Old Man” has his own fantasies. He wants to become “The Genius of Cleveland Street” and thinks that entering word-puzzle contests will achieve that. It’s “another exhausting climb uphill,” he admits, because “there’s one blank you can’t seem to fill.”
Fill it he does, however, which results in that aforementioned lamp. “I won a major award!” The Old Man crows. The entire town joins him in a big production number, and I’ll bet you can guess what happens in a number that celebrates a leg-shaped object: a kickline, of course. Carlyle gives each of his chorus members a leg, and has each alternate kicking a left foot and then lifting the artificial limb. Blank’s zippy orchestration helps put the number over in the best Broadway tradition.
The score, staging and cast are all so winning that I was delighted when a number had to be repeated for one reason or another. What was most impressive was the professionalism of the kids. No matter how many times the action was stopped, not one of them whooshed or cursed in frustration. They all had eager looks of “What do you need me to do?” They were there to work, and work they did, especially excelling in a song where they confess their wimpiness when confronted by the town’s most fearsome bullies.
I can’t tell you any of the kids’ names, because nary a program was available. (Don’t think that I didn’t scour the theater looking for a sealed box that I would have ripped open with the strength that a strongman uses on a phone book.) I did recognize John Bolton as Ralphie’s “Old Man.” I well remember how wonderful he was in Curtains, not merely as critic Daryl Grady, but also, during David Hyde Pierce’s vacation, as detective and musical theater enthusiast Frank Cioffi. Frankly, I preferred Bolton because he had more of the giddiness that a show freak would have displayed if he’d had the chance to meet the cast and crew of a great, big Broadway show. Karen Mason, on hand as Ralphie’s teacher, is superb, as are ensemble members Lyn Philistine and Kirsten Wyatt.
I counted 16 musicians in the pit, which is a generous number for a touring show. After Hershey, A Christmas Story plays Detroit, Raleigh, Tampa and Chicago. Next year on Broadway? Miller and his partners hope so. If so, John Bolton won’t be the only one singing, “I won a major award.”
And needless to say, I hope it comes in so I can see Act Two. While I would have liked to have stayed until the last moment of the out-music, Hershey is still a solid three-hour car ride from New York -- even at police-angering speeds. So I reluctantly took my leave.
But en route, A Christmas Story was still with me, because “Ralphie to the Rescue” kept pleasantly invading my brain. Don’t you just love ending the day by cherishing a song that, only a few hours earlier, you didn’t even know existed?
— Peter Filichia