In the interest of full disclosure, I want to be upfront about the fact that I am probably not the intended audience for this new musical, based on the 1983 movie, based on the Jean Shepherd book "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash." First of all, I don’t celebrate Christmas. Second, I’m not particularly interested in Christmas. Third, I had never even seen the film version of A Christmas Story, though out of a sense of duty, I did watch the movie after I saw the musical. And finally, I kind of think that if you give a nine-year-old a BB gun, there’s a damn good chance he’s going to shoot his eye out.
So now that you know all, here goes. For those of you who, like me, were unfamiliar with the episodic plot – and here the musical version, by Joseph Robinette (book) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) sticks pretty close to the film – the action unfolds in an imaginary small town in Indiana in the late 30s/early 40s as the countdown to Christmas begins in one hectic household. Ralphie (Johnny Rabe, at most performances) is desperate for “a Red Ryder BB Gun with a compass in the stock, and ‘this thing which tells time’" (which, with the advantage of Wikipedia, I find is apparently a sundial). Naturally, his mother (played by the talented Erin Dilly) – like most of the adults in his life – considers this unsafe. As the days go by, Ralphie dreams up various schemes to get the object of his affections, including writing what’s intended to be a blue-ribbon school theme on the topic and even asking a cynical department store Santa. And, of course, he tries to be good, though these attempts meet with even less success as he beats up a local bully, doesn’t ‘fess up about how his pal came to lick a flagpole in the freezing cold (and yes, his tongue does stick), and even drops the F-bomb in front of his dad (John Bolton), who, despite his own perpetually foul mouth, can’t figure out where Ralphie picked up that kind of language.
So the show’s got a trajectory of sorts, and Jean Shepherd (Dan Lauria) amiably wanders through the action, connecting the picaresque adventures with folksy explanations. But while the musical’s plot does match up to that of the now classic flick, the film felt unified by a haze of vague but pleasant nostalgia (Mom dishing up dinner! Clinkers in the furnace! Gifts under the tree!), while the musical feels fragmented in its attempts to be all things to all men. No throwaway line is too small to serve as a song cue: When Jean remarks in the movie that his mom can’t sit down to a hot meal without having to get up to serve her brood, in the musical, Dilly is forced to give voice to a paean to her own motherhood so drippy that it would never have made it into the movie, where the mom had more of a backbone.
Admittedly, this over-musicalization does allow Caroline O’Connor as Ralphie’s teacher, Miss Shields, to indulge in a fun, vampy (though utterly gratuitous) song and dance called “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” and individual numbers, like “The Genius on Cleveland Street,” which allows the likable Bolton some witty moments, and “Up on Santa’s Lap,” which provides employment to a whole passel of disaffected elves, can be charming. But they make this already episodic story that much more fragmented, as the songs evoke a myriad of genres, and all John Rando’s direction and Lauria’s connective musings fail to keep it glued. The performers do what they can with the scattershot material, but ultimately, despite Ralphie’s unwavering quest, the show feels more like a Christmas-themed revue than a finished work.