By Philip Pearce
I used to wonder why the family I usually spend Christmas with always go out for Chinese on Christmas Eve. They explained the custom by introducing me to Jean Shepherd’s wild and wonderful 1983 movie comedy A Christmas Story. If you still don’t see any connection between Yuletide and egg rolls, check out the final moments of the big, delightful musical version of A Christmas Story that just opened at The Western Stage.
The plot is simple enough. Shepherd, a radio emcee, recalls how, as a nine-year-old, he struggled to guarantee “a Red Ryder carbine-action BB gun” under the tree on Christmas morning. He was repeatedly thwarted—“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”—but finally gained his prize. What gives this story its kick for people like me who grew up in the 1940s are its bright insights into mid-twentieth-century American life and the pistol packin’ triple-dog-dare boy world of kids like Ralphie and Randy Parker. And me.
Andrew Mansour is pretty near perfect as Ralphie, desperately plotting strategies to achieve his goal, belting out his songs with verve and wit and acting like a seasoned pro. He is particularly effective in an elaborate fantasy sequence which takes Ralphie through imaginary gun battles in gangland, then in a Western saloon, then in the rescue of a Tonto-like Indian buddy, all happening to the tune of a number called “Ralphie to the Rescue!” As his beleaguered younger brother Randy, Roco Contreras conveys an appealing air of hope and pathos even through so many layers of winter woolen clothing that he can’t lower his arms or get up when he falls down on the sidewalk.
The Parker parents, played by the gifted and hilarious Mike Baker and the brisk and appealing Jennifer L. Newman, sing and act skillfully, notably in the well-known “Leg Lamp” sequence. Shaped like a chorus girl’s leg and topped by a bulb and a shade, this piece of junk is Baker’s award, after years of unsuccessful submissions to magazine contests. As obsessive about his contests as his son is about his coveted carbine-action weapon, Ralphie’s Old Man flaunts his victory all over the neighborhood (“A Major Award”), keeps the eyesore continually lit in the front window and, when his wife (mistakenly?) breaks it beyond repair, gives it the reverent burial of a beloved family member.
Melissa Chin Parker is delightful as Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields, who returns his “What I Want for Christmas” composition (“remember the margins”) with the same comment he’s handed by everyone he begs for the air rifle, from his parents to his local department store Santa. Like them, she tells him, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” I knew Parker’s gifts as actress and singer but was blown away by her deft and breezy tap dancing with three of her fourth grade girl pupils.
As the adult Jean Shepherd, Dennis Beasley offers reminiscent commentary that adroitly moves the story along and holds the variety of sequences together.
Jeff McGrath has done a fine job of marshaling and organizing a cast of thirty, many of them teens and pre-teens, in fondly remembered comedy moments like the Parker boys’ classmate Flick’s absence from school because his tongue is stuck to a frozen flag pole. That kind of slapstick, plus intricate song and dance routines, demands and gets split second timing and quick scene and costume changes.
Joseph Robinette, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have written a musical score and dance numbers that point up and develop pieces of film narrative that have become nearly as much a staple of holiday televiewing as It’s a Wonderful Life. John Jay Espino conducts an orchestra of fifteen able brass, reed, percussion and keyboard players with a vigor and a clarity that asserts itself but never once drowns out the voices up on stage.
The show continues Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2, through December 13th.