Leaving the Ahmanson Theatre Friday night after seeing A Christmas Story – The Musical, one resounding thought echoed in my mind: by God, those kids are $#&*ing talented. And as I reflected on my own feeble grade school multipurpose room attempt at “Conjunction Junction,” I couldn’t help but thank my lucky stars that I’ll never be up against Kai Edgar or Henry Witcher in an audition room.
As is a very common trend with modern musicals, A Christmas Story is based on a film of the same name, in this case a 40-year-old tradition. It has been adapted for stage by Joseph Robinette with music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (the musical duo behind the hit Dear Evan Hansen.
A Christmas Story: The Musical, like the film, follows Ralphie, a young boy who really really wants a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas, and will do just about anything to convince his parents to buy it for him. Set in the 1940s, the story is warm and nostalgic, harkening back to a time of close-knit communities, nuclear families, and an era unaffected by rampant gun violence. The musical is a time capsule, not only of the ’40s, but of childhood and those fleeting December nights that somehow felt more Christmassy than they do today. The musical stays exceptionally true to source, and fans of the film will be delighted to see iconic moments from frozen flagpoles to grumpy mall Santas honored through song and dance.
Now, to the chagrin of every person of my parents’ generation, I have not seen the film A Christmas Story, nor do I have any conscious memory of the world before 2004. I was intrigued to see if the musical could still captivate an audience member with no nostalgia for the original film. I am pleased to say it does.
In a word, A Christmas Story – The Musical is charming, as a family-friendly holiday production should be. The design is high spectacle, colorful, and dynamic. The scenes and scene changes flow continuously, and the action never pauses, thanks to the deft direction of Matt Lenz.
Performances are strong across the board. The charismatic Chris Carsten, portraying Jean Shepherd, narrates the show as an older, though young-at-heart Ralphie. He lends terrific warmth to the role, and feels familial, almost like a grandfather recounting holidays past. Eric Peterson shines as The Old Man, delivering a performance that is desperate, gruff, and yet ultimately loving. His number “A Major Award,” featuring an ensemble of stiletto-clad leg lamps, is stand-out, as The Old Man, in all his goofy fumbling, is finally able to prove to the world that he is important. Sabrina Sloan is tender and impressively progressive as the ’40s-era mother– she is undeniably head-of-household, and Shelley Regner is hilarious as the uptight and surprisingly star-powered Miss Shields.
And, of course, the kids. If you needed convincing to leave your house and brave this frigid 70-degree Los Angeles December for a trip to the theatre, let it be these kids. They are not good for their age, they are just good. At only 11 years old, Kai Edgar leads the show with charisma, vivacity, and a loveable nerdiness as Ralphie. Henry Witcher, portraying younger brother Randy, could win over even the crankiest humbug-spouting curmudgeon while waddling in his oversized snowsuit. And I think I whispered out loud, “Well, that’s just not fair,” when Addalie Burns took center stage for her impressively skillful tap solo.
The best parts of the musical are the imaginative ensemble numbers, all imbued with the whimsy and fantasy of childhood. From the Wild West in “Ralphie to the Rescue” to a 1930s speakeasy in “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” the show does an excellent job capturing the point of view of a nine-year-old and inviting the audience to share in the wonder of the grown-up world as it is experienced by Ralphie and his classmates. With creative and dynamic choreography by Warren Carlyle and an ensemble full of personality, the show is entertaining and captivating for youth and adult audience members alike
In a production emphasizing the significance of life’s small pleasures, whether it’s a lamp, a BB gun, or a family dinner, I find myself recalling the pre-show sentiment of Snehal Desai, Artistic Director at Center Theatre Group: supporting live theatre and local artists is a small commitment with a large impact. As the year comes to a close, I would argue that a trip to go see A Christmas Story – The Musical, or even just a trip to the theater, is worth both your time and money. Whether you’re championing your community’s artistic landscape or securing a spot on the nice list, who’s to say?
A Christmas Story – The Musical runs through Dec. 31 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N Grand Ave. downtown, at The Music Center. Tickets range $40-160 and can be purchased here.