Monday, December 21, 2015

Ralphie Redux: Musical 'Christmas Story' Presents a Nice Way to Wrap Up the Holiday Season -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Christmas Story: The Musical
Paramount Theatre, Aurora
Thru January 3

The hearty few who read Seth Saith religiously--and bless you if you do--may recall that a few weeks ago I saw and reviewed a live version of A Christmas Story at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN.

While it was enjoyable enough for an evening's entertainment, and a show I imagined many would find appealing, it wasn't quite what I was expecting.

Specifically, it wasn't the musical adaptation of the beloved 1983 movie, which I really relished in its first Chicagoland production, pre-Broadway in late 2011 at the Chicago Theatre.

To be clear, Theatre at the Center did nothing to promote it as such, but not knowing a non-musical stage version existed, upon deciding to go I assumed I'd again get to see the musical. It was only on the day of the show that I discovered I wouldn't.

Those involved did a nice job essentially re-enacting the movie, but having seen the film--a bit oddly, not until after I had seen the musical--I wasn't convinced of the necessity of a straightforward live replication, especially as it didn't delight nearly as much as the musical.

And to gauchely quote myself, in the closing paragraph of my @@@ (out of 5) review, I noted that:

"I'm still hoping the musical version will reappear somewhere down the line."

Well, down the line turned out to mean pretty much at the same time, and about 60 miles west at the opposite end of what may comprise "Chicago area theater."

So I felt compelled to see A Christmas Story: The Musical at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

And I'm glad I did.

Of course, to those of you who might consider it a bit extreme for a Jewish kid from Skokie to shlep to Munster, and to Aurora, to see two theatrical interpretations of a movie that will run 'round the clock on TBS, well I can't really offer strenuous debate. (And on top of also seeing A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker, I've likely reached my limit of live holiday fare.)

But supposedly boasting a 30,000 strong subscriber base, the Paramount in recent years has joined Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire and Drury Lane Oakbrook (and often Theatre at the Center in Munster, as well as Chicago's Mercury Theatre) as regional self-producing houses that regularly stage musicals with comparable--and at times superior--quality to touring Broadway shows that play in the Loop.

In April I found this again to be the case when I caught an exceptional Paramount production of Les Misérables.

Thus, it wasn't just that someone was doing the Christmas Story musical, it was a theater whose work I've found consistently superb.

And under the direction of Nick Bowling, the musical scored by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul--with a book by Joseph Robinette, based on the movie--was about as good as I could have hoped.

Which in an odd way, made it a tad less thrilling than I remembered.

Playing Chicago a year before going to Broadway, in 2011 it was a new musical I saw without knowing any of the songs ahead of time. Also unfamiliar with most of the movie's specifics at that point, I found the story beguiling while many of the tunes were instantly catchy and several production numbers inspired.

By and large, the quality I noted remains true in Aurora, as young Michael Harp--so good earlier this year in Drury Lane's Billy Elliot (as Billy's friend Michael)--delivers a winning performance as Ralphie, the Indiana boy who shares the highs and lows, laughs and tears of a holiday season in which he wishes for a particular Christmas present.

Michael Accardo and Danni Smith are really good as Ralphie's parents, and Philip Earl Johnson is not only
strong as narrator and ostensible "adult Ralphie," Jean Shepherd--the real-life radio host who created the source material and wrote the movie based on his Hammond, IN childhood--I preferred the balance that was struck here vs. the non-musical, where the grown-up Ralphie is more prominently the main character.

Songs like "Ralphie to the Rescue," "Sticky Situation" and "Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana" are a lot of fun, and the most memorable moments from the movie are all present in a well-paced show that barely tops 2 hours with an intermission. (Though I missed any hints at fledgling romance for Ralphie, which was present in the play version.)

But while there is much to love in Pasek & Paul's score, and I've now owned a Cast Recording for awhile, I was less wowed than I was upon hearing it fresh.

While it was reiterated that A Christmas Story is a fine musical with a strong score to complement its warmhearted seasonal recollections, in a year where I've seen really terrific regional renditions of Les Miz, Billy Elliot, West Side Story, The Producers, La Cage aux Folles and more, I didn't perceive it to be quite on par, whether in terms of the material, production or some enigmatic combination of both.

Which isn't to suggest this @@@@ review doesn't constitute a recommendation.

A nearly full house of approx. 1,500 patrons at the resplendent Paramount seemed to validate my affinity for one of the better movie-to-stage musical adaptations of recent years...and for the quality of the work regularly done at the host venue.

I'm glad I made the trek from Skokie.

And back even more merrily.

But for those who don't travel by sleigh, or live relatively close to Aurora, I can't quite insist one's presence at this Christmas Story is a gift you must give yourself--and others.

Even if the musical version is, live and in-person, clearly the way to go.

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