Monday, December 4, 2017

"A Christmas Story: The Musical"

A Christmas Story: The Musical
Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (Music & Lyrics); Joseph Robinette (Book)

The Kids of A Christmas Story: The Musical
For those who celebrate it, Christmas universally evokes feelings of nostalgia based on memories that often seem even more precious and wonderful than the actual events may have actually been, especially when it comes to those of one’s childhood.  The smell of turkey roasting erases how dry mom’s bird was after she cooked it twice as long as needed.  The excited anticipation we now recall of the days leading up to the big morning forgets the inevitable tensions of preparations and kids getting in the way.  Happy arrivals of relatives we see in our mind’s eyes close their lids to the tensions as soon as everyone has spent a few hours together and topics that were not to be touched plop themselves on the holiday table.

But those happy memories are what make many of us anticipate once again the annual arrival of yet another Christmas season.  A Christmas Story: The Musical – the 2012 Broadway offering based on a 1983 popular movie – is one man’s memories of a particular Christmas of his childhood.  As translated to stage by Joseph Robinette (book), the 1940 setting and events are ones that Norman Rockwell could have had a heyday; for there is an innocence of intentions, a perfection only slightly marred by individuals’ quirkiness, and bad things which are the kinds that work themselves out with no harm done and all smiles in the end. 

Produced this holiday season as a gift to its audiences – especially those with kids – San Francisco Playhouse presents A Christmas Story: The Musical that is full of rambunctious, cute kids with the kinds of flare-ups and flaws we expect to see in a TV Christmas special.  There are also adults who have been rose-glass-colored by Jean Shepherd’s memory bank where his Mom was the nicest person on earth, Dad was totally strange but lovable, his Brother was weird but a pal (even though they always fought), he was fatter and dorkier than most other kids, and Miss Shields (his teacher at nine) was someone he secretly loved and believed saw him as the chosen one in the class.  The result is a syrupy sweet production full of gosh-darn bits of yesteryear and musical production numbers that will delight the young-at-heart -- and especially the young-of-age.

Christopher Reber
Jean, now a radio story-teller played by Christopher Reber, is telling his story and watching from the sidelines as his memories come to life on the multi-leveled stage that we see.  Jacqueline Scott has created a set with parts of his boyhood house unfolding like a page in a children’s pop-up storybook. Other parts of his life’s panorama emerge on a spinning table or from behind a screened wall where recalled school and town scenes and the people populating them magically appear (along with even the family’s late-30s convertible with its faulty tires). 

Katrina Lauren McGraw, Joshua Broscow & Abby Haug
The story he tells of course centers a lot on himself, once known when a nine-year-old as Ralphie.  The particular Christmas season he relates is one when Ralphie has his heart set on only one thing: How to convince someone (mom, dad, Miss Shields, Santa) that he must receive an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Model Air Rifle (that also tells the time).  The fact that everyone of them warns him, “You’ll shoot your eye out” in no way deters the determined Ralphie, who imagines a whole series of scenes where he will be an acclaimed hero against robbers, bullies, and kidnappers once he has his prized gun.  “Ralphie to the Rescue” is just one of several big numbers that Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (music & lyrics) employ to let a kid’s imagination explode on a stage full of cowboys and bad guys, evil department store elves, or his favorite teacher as a glamorous singer in white mink.  Their music is upbeat like one would find in the old Saturday morning shows on TV with lyrics that tell the story from a kid’s point of view – all of which are mildly enjoyable if one is over 12 and a kick and hoot for all those younger.

At the Sunday matinee I attended, Mario Gianni Herrera stepped into the role of Ralphie as the understudy for a sick Joshua Briscow; and he did so without stumbling on even one spoken or sung word!  His Ralphie is one full of brightened wonder and optimism in his eyes as he dreams and sings of his hoped-for Red Ryder gun.  When things sometimes turn into temporary disasters (as happens in any nine-year-old’s life), his looks of momentary sadness are enough to melt hearts as big, ol’ tears well in those same, cute eyes.  Kudos go to Mario for stepping in with his own flair and fashion into the lead role for one afternoon.

Ryan Drummond & Abby Haug
Mario’s family includes his brother Randy (played by a shy and adorable Jake Miller, who alternates the role with Kavan Bhatia), a little boy who spends much of his time under the kitchen sink and who can only be persuaded to eat him dinner when a patient, understanding mom allows him to become a piggy at the slop trough.  Mother, as played by Abby Haug, could substitute any day for June Cleaver (“Leave It to Beaver”) or Margaret Anderson (“Father Knows Best”).  In Jean’s memory, she is practically flawless.  His memory of Mother making everything right for him after his encounter with a bully on the playground offers Ms. Haug the opportunity to shine in a beautifully sung “Just Like That,” the one truly adult-appealing number of the Pasek/Paul musical.

Father (identified by Jean as “The Old Man”) is a knockout role for Ryan Drummond.  As the “most feared furnace fighter in all of Indiana,” Jean’s memories of his dad are of a guy always having to fix something amidst a cloud of #!@#! words his mom covers the kids’ ears so they hopefully will not hear.  The Old Man is also obsessed in entering crossword puzzle contests, and Ryan Drummond milks both the completing of a to-be-submitted puzzle and a resulting won prize for every laugh possible.  His face molds into expression hilarious as they are remembered seen from a nine-year-old’s eyes, and he gets a chance to perform a dance number on the kitchen table and chairs, one worthy of any chorus boy on Broadway.

Katrina Lauren McGraw & Her Pupils
If there were a “Best Featured” acting role awarded for this SF Playhouse musical, it would hands-down go to Katrina Lauren McGraw as Miss Shields.  Each time she in on stage in that role, the spotlight of attention automatically goes her way (even when surrounded by nine jumping, just-too-cute kids).  Never is that more true when Ralphie conjures her up as the star of a 1930’s speakeasy when Ms. McGraw gets a chance to belt out in a huge vocal number “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” complete with a chance to shine as a tap-dancer.

The Cast of A Christmas Story: The Musical
Director Susi Damilano guides this large cast of both the young and the old through many scenes of shifting sets, never allowing even a few seconds of non-action pause when a young child in the audience might lose attention.  Abra Berman has designed costumes 100% All-American for the middle-class family and town of 1940’s Indiana while at the same time creating those only a kid’s wild imagination flamed by Saturday matinees at the movies could engender.  Thomas J. Munn’s lighting and Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound designs provide their own scene-setting touches to evoke both nostalgic and kid-exaggerated scenes.  Dave Dobrusky performs his normal magic as Music Director in leading the 5-piece orchestra as they perform the musical’s score with much pizzazz and some tongue-in-cheek.

While maybe not the cat’s meow for all adult theatre-goers sans children, San Francisco Playhouse’s A Christmas Story: The Musical is certainly the perfect family outing for anyone who is looking for how to introduce or further enhance a youngster’s love for live theatre.  I cannot imagine any child leaving the theatre not wanting to go to another play or musical as soon as possible.  I also believe that any family attending together will be walk out hand-in-hand with big smiles, all anticipating the best holiday yet for December 2017!

Rating: 3.5 E

A Christmas Story: The Musical continues through January 13, 2018 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli


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