Saturday, December 24, 2011

Even for the Uninitiated, A Christmas Story Makes a Delightful Musical -- Theater Review

Theater Review

A Christmas Story: The Musical!
Chicago Theatre
Thru December 30

The other day, I saw David Fincher's movie version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I thought it was quite good, but having read the book and seen the Swedish film adaptation, I knew the key plot points and actively wondered how Fincher's film would play to anyone coming to it cold. At the very least, the experience of seeing it with fresh eyes would be quite different.

I mention this here because undoubtedly unlike many of those seeing A Christmas Story: The Musical!, I have never seen the seemingly much beloved 1983 movie on which it is based.

I suppose I should, but am glad I went into the musical--recently created, but not a world premiere, now in a high profile run at the Chicago Theatre--unknowing. For though I recognize the challenge of adapting a popular work from one art form to another without either seeming too obvious & redundant, disappointing the faithful or confusing the newbies, ideally each work should stand--and sparkle--on its own.

Though I was drawn to A Christmas Story by strong reviews in both the Tribune and Sun-Times, not only did I not know the film, I didn't bring any kids with me (and am a bit removed from being one myself), I don't celebrate Christmas (being Jewish), I didn't know any of the music going in (unlike with most musicals I see, even new ones with original scores) and I've never heard of the composer/lyricists (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul).

Yet even with all those reasons to possibly not love it, I still did. With a show full of songs that sparkled even on a first hearing, a charming story, a strong cast and impressive scenery, A Christmas Story was thoroughly delightful.

In fact, or at least opinion, other then The Book of Mormon, this was probably the best new musical I've seen in 2011 (and that includes the most expensive musical ever created, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark).

By virtue of his being the understudy for the central role of young, bespectacled Ralphie, I'm guessing Carl Kimbrough isn't quite as polished a performer as Clarke Hallum, the regular Ralphie. At times, Kimbrough's singing was hard to hear over the orchestra and I never took note of his dancing, for which rave reviews have praised Hallum.

But an "underdog" Ralphie seemed rather apropos for the role, and Kimbrough was quite likable along with many other winning child actors. And several Broadway caliber adults were excellent, including Rachel Bay Jones and John Bolton as Ralphie's Mom and Dad, longtime Chicago vocalist Karen Mason as his teacher and Gene Weygandt as the narrator, Jean Shepherd. This was the third show in which I've seen Weygandt this year--Working and Snapshots being the others--and it's a shame his role didn't call for him to do any singing.

For while the quirky story--which I imagine closely matched the movie--was certainly enjoyable, the quality of the music was surprising. As I said, I don't see many musicals without having heard a cast recording, and when I do, only the very best scores capture me instantly. Yet, that was the case here. In fact, I bought a cast recording at intermission (after checking that that the one available at the theater isn't yet carried on Amazon).

The song "Ralphie to the Rescue!" lent itself to the best production number, but almost all the others were quite catchy and tuneful. From what I've read, A Christmas Story: The Musical! has Broadway aspirations, and it's almost a shame that its title will likely make it a seasonal affair. It's also a shame that it's not extending past December 30 in Chicago. But if you can get to A Christmas Story before it wraps, you'll be giving yourself quite a present.

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