'A Christmas Story: The Musical' warm, relatable
Classic holiday stories have become stage staples over the years, but few offer as much childhood nostalgia — and playfulness — as “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” the beloved story of bespectacled Ralphie and his desire for a Ryder BB Gun for Christmas.
Based on the iconic 1983 film, “A Christmas Story,” the stage production stays true to the movie version of young Ralphie and his quest to receive the holiday gift of his dreams — the official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. The movie was based on a series of short stories by the late Jean Shepherd, a writer and radio personality.
“The story is universal,” says Chris Carsten, who plays Jean Shepherd, the narrator, in the touring production. “I think when the movie came out, it didn’t do so well at the box office, but over the years people started latching onto it. The story has heart and it pounds rather furiously.
“People remember Christmas presents they wanted as a kid and how they tried to influence or manipulate their parents to get it. When your dream comes true, it’s a wonderful moment. A lot of people can relate to that experience.”
Unlike in the movie, Carsten’s narrator is not just a voiceover. His character weaves in and out of scenes, not joining in dialogue between the characters, but accenting on-stage action and moving the story along. The setting is a fictionalized town in Indiana in the 1940s.
The same distractions that stand between Ralphie and his Christmas wish are played out in the musical. They include the classic (cringe-worthy) scene where Ralphie’s dim friend Flick gets his tongue stuck on a freezing flag pole after caving to a triple-dog-dare. And his father’s obsession with the infamous — and ugly — leg lamp (a woman’s nyloned leg topped with a gold-colored silk lampshade and pleated with fringe around it) that he won in a contest.
The biggest difference between the film and the stage production version, which debuted at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre in New York in November 2012, is the music. The score was written and composed by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the team who won a Tony Award for “Dear Evan Hansen,” and an Oscar for “La La Land.”
In a New York Times review, Charles Isherwood praised the score, writing “Mr. Pasek and Mr. Paul have provided a likable, perky score that duly translates all of the major episodes into appropriate musical numbers.” The production was nominated for three Tony Awards, including best original score and best new musical, in 2013.
“We’re pretty faithful to the core story and all those iconic moments that happen,” says Carsten, who returns to the narrator role for a fifth time. “We use those moments to build musical numbers around.”
Those iconic scenes include the leg lamp, Ralphie’s outrageous pink bunny pajamas, a maniacal department store Santa and the tongue-stuck-on-flagpole. The latter becomes “Sticky Situation,” in the second act, a musical production number featuring Ralphie, Flick, children and various adults, including teacher Miss Shields.
“The idea of Flick sticking his tongue to the flag pole gets suggested in the first act,” says Carsten, who has also toured in “Legally Blonde,” and “My Fair Lady.” “(The kids) have been having the argument about it for a long time, but it doesn’t come to fruition. It doesn’t happen to the top of the second act. But you can hear and feel the audience react to it even when it’s hinted — they know all about the tongue on the pole. There’s always a big round of applause.”
The musical numbers, he says, stand out, “they really pop. We have a great orchestra. The songs are a lot of fun and we have a lot of standout numbers. I think (the composers and lyricists) Pasek and Paul did this to great success. Even though it’s a seasonal show — it wasn’t meant to be a year-round production — it’s a great success.”
Among the show-stoppers is “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” a phrase Ralphie hears repeatedly throughout his journey to secure the Red Ryder for Christmas.
“It’s built around Ralphie’s fantasies. It’s the common phrase that runs through the show,” Carsten says. “Every time he asks for the gun, an adult tells him, ‘You’ll shoot your eyes out.’ ”
Carsten says the show wraps up nicely, “in a sentimental, nice little way,” with a stage montage with various elements of the story — the pink bunny suit, Flick and his bandaged tongue, Santa Claus — crossing the stage as the narrator reflects, before the final number, “A Christmas Story.”
“It brings a wonderful emotion right to the surface,” Carsten says. “We all feel it, the actors and the audience. It’s just a really nice minute in the show.”
The production closes its seasonal run at the Fox Theatre, just a few days before Christmas. “A Christmas Story: The Musical” last played in Detroit in 2016.
“I certainly hope the show enhances people’s Christmas,” Carsten says. “It’s all about the joy and giving, being with family, friends and loved ones. ‘A Christmas Story’ has family at its core. It’s one of those wonderful stories we’ve come to know and love. Its association with Christmas gives it extra dramatic power, staying power. It allows us to keep revisiting it every year. It leaves you with a nice warm, emotional feeling.”
In the Christmas spirit, the touring production has partnered with the Michigan Humane Society during its Fox Theatre engagement to raise money for the organization.
In honor of the stage production’s two featured rescue dogs, Stella and Hoss, who play “The Bumpus Hounds,” each ticket sold through Dec. 22 — using the code MHS — will raise money to support the Michigan Humane Society’s mission to improve and save the lives of animals. One dollar per ticket will be donated to the organization. Tickets will be discounted 30 percent.
Customers should use the code “MHS” at Ticketmaster.com.
Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.
‘A Christmas Story: The Musical’
8 p.m. Dec. 20 and (Dec. 21, 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 22
2211 Woodward, Detroit
Tickets: $36 and up
Ticketmaster.com or 313presents.com