Star Tribune Review: Much-loved on film, ‘A Christmas Story” is charming onstage, too

Kristin Tillotson, Star Tribune 12/9/14

The Ordway’s homespun production of ‘A Christmas Story: The Musical’ is the star atop this year’s holiday live-entertainment tree.

Clip on your mittens, wriggle into your snowsuit, hop into the Oldsmobile and get to downtown St. Paul. The Ordway’s homespun production of “A Christmas Story: The Musical” is the star atop this year’s holiday live-entertainment tree.

Fans of the neoclassic movie, which features a bespectacled 1940s Indiana boy named Ralphie Parker and his fervent quest for a red Ryder Carbine-Action BB gun, might wonder how their sacrosanct tale could translate to the stage. Well kid, before you shoot your eye out, I’ll tell you: Bee-yoo-tifully. And wisely, differently.

Director James Rocco, the Ordway’s programming vice president and a Broadway transplant who clearly knows how to put on a good old-fashioned crowd pleaser, tapped a mix of local and national talent that reminds musical aficionados of two things: There can never be too many song-and-dance numbers, and talented child performers sustain momentum like nobody’s business.

The adult actors provide the bedrock of the show, especially Gary Briggle as radio announcer Jean Shepherd, the real-life author of “A Christmas Story.” A continuous background presence in the “Our Town” narrator mode, Briggle is a comforting authority — as if an animated Walter Mondale were telling his grandchildren a bedtime story. As Ralphie’s dad, “The Old Man,” Dieter Bierbrauer must have known he couldn’t re-create Darren McGavin’s menacing persona from the movie, and instead brashly dances his way into the audience’s good graces as a clowning showboat.

But it’s the kids who electrify the stage. In addition to his jaw-dropping voice, Jake Goodman imbues Ralphie with a believable boyish vulnerability, and James Ciccarelle as kid bro Randy is equally compelling. Their scenes with a gaggle of neighborhood pals, nary a grown-up in sight, are reminiscent of the best of “Annie.”

What the show lacks in building the movie’s suspense, it makes up for in energetically choreographed fantasies. One features Ralphie in cowboy garb saving his teacher (the delightfully rambunctious Erin Schwab) from a Snidely Whiplash-style villain; another has The Old Man going on an ego trip about winning a “major award,” which comes in the form of the infamous leg lamp.

While the sets seem to grow more slapdash with each change — the Higbee’s department-store Santa station is particularly disappointing — the most important one is perfection down to its barkcloth drapes and robin’s egg-blue kitchen cupboards. The Parker family home and the giant retro holiday decorations that frame the stage will suffuse anyone over 50 with nostalgic reverie, and send younger folks on junkets to antique stores. Ditto for Lynda L. Salsbury’s spot-on, lovingly detailed costumes.

Grandmas will chortle over the line, “Careful, it’s plastic,” as will 9-year-olds on hearing that “Oh, fudge” was once considered a curse. Of all the show’s charms, perhaps the most ingenious is that it truly offers something for every generation.

Read the article on Star Tribune online here.

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