The two busiest times of the year for New York theater tend to be right before Christmas and then right before the Tony Awards in June. Unfortunately, these two times coincide with the end of the semester at the Boston Conservatory, where I teach full time. And, of course, school has to come first. (They pay me. Blogging doesn't.)
So, please forgive me, dear reader, as I start to play catch-up on some of the shows that I was able to see before final exams, but that I haven't yet had time to blog about. Two of those are unfortunately closed: Giant and Murder Ballad. But I do plan to weigh in on those shows, partly in anticipation of their upcoming cast recordings, but also toward the possibility of future productions of either, or both. I also caught a preview showing of the film version of Les Miserables earlier this week. Watch for my review sometime next week.
I figured the best way to start working through the backlog was to start with my review of a show that's still running, A Christmas Story. I must first confess that I've never really been a fan of the original "A Christmas Story" movie. I find it charmless and cloying, but I seem to be in the decided minority there. I also appear to be outnumbered in terms of critical response to the musical version, as the reviews were downright rapturous.
I think part of my nonplussed reaction to both the movie and the musical comes from the fact that I can't even begin to identify with little Ralphie in his all-consuming desire to receive a BB gun for Christmas. I also never really saw the tacky charm of the iconic leg lamp that the father receives as an award for a crossword contest. And the other iconic scene in which the poor young boy gets his tongue frozen to a flag pole seems not funny but cruel.
But, as I've said time and again, every musical ultimately comes down to execution, and I like to think that I went into the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with as open a mind as possible. However, I found the whole production to be a distressingly run-of-the-mill affair, except perhaps for two rather buoyant production numbers. The staging for most of the numbers felt...well, staged. This was particularly true in "When You're a Wimp," in which the cartoon bullying felt as artificial as the snow decorating the stage. It felt as through we were watching a run-through and that at any minute director John Rando would step in and ask the kids to do it again, but this time really mean it. (Of course, this isn't really the kids' fault, but rather Rando's.)
As I said, there were two numbers that rose above the pedestrian, and one of those was, interestingly, "A Major Award," in which the protean and dynamic John Bolton, in the Darren McGavin role of "The Old Man," rejoices upon receiving the aforementioned leg lamp. The combination of Bolton's exuberance, Warren Carlyle's momentarily inspired choreography, and a whole slew of mini-leg lamps for the chorus, brought the father's joy to exhilarated life in a way that the movie never really did for me.
The other number that temporarily lifted the show above the serviceable was "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out," a fantasy sequence in which we are rather inexplicably transported from Ralphie's classroom to a speakeasy. (Is that really where nine-year-olds go on their flights of fancy?) Flimsy justification nothwithstanding, the number provided ample opportunity for the talented supporting cast to show off their tapping skills. I'm not usually one to respond to bald-faced showboating, but these kids were pretty sensational, particularly the phenomonal little scene-stealer Luke Spring, a preternaturally gifted little tapper. Simply amazing.
A Christmas Story represents the Broadway debut for the extremely promising writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and I really wish I could say that their score here made more of an impression, particularly because their score to the recent Off-Broadway musical, Dogfight, was so strong. A Chistmas Story starts with a sprightly overture that promises much in the way of memorable melodies, but in performance the score just kind of sits there. I do, however, genuinely hope that we continue to see shows from Pasek and Paul make it to the professional stage. They're a talented pair of writers and have much to offer the musical form.
But, hey, what do I know, right? Most of the reviews for this show were positive love letters, and the grosses have been increasingly strong. I get the sense that we'll see A Christmas Story again in seasons to come.