A Christmas Story: The Musical is a weak adaptation of a family classic

Photo by David Cooper

When people re-visit movies to the point where they can memorize punchlines, even entire scenes, beat-for-beat, it is tempting for writers to think that this is then a formula — do the same thing, but new, and it’ll be loved just like the original (or at least that’s the hope).

A Christmas Story: The Musical does not, as some re-adaptations do, go back to the source material, but simply retains the dialogue, the narrative, and the jokes of the movie that people already know and adds some song-and-dance numbers. So it’s A Christmas Story: if you already love it beyond reason, seeing the Arts Club’s ensemble cast perform a squeaky-clean, slightly sped-up version of the familiar holiday fixture will probably be heart-warming. If you can part with the “Little Orphan Annie” code-breaker and Christmas tree buying and set-up scenes, there will be absolutely nothing controversial or offensive about this production, which is, if nothing else, technically proficient: notes are hit, jokes are landed, children are cute, adults are flamboyant, it’s entertainment.

With that out of the way, it’s worth asking: why this show, in this year, in this way. This version of A Christmas Story debuted in 2010, and it does reflect a modern sensibility, but one of the laziest around: the telephone-game version of nostalgia for works that, when they were made, might have actually had a little more to them that hazy memory fails to recall.

Take the opening scene of the new musical: our narrator, never named, but repeating the role played in voiceover by Jean Shepherd in the original, huddles in the cold, is bothered by a Salvation Army bell-ringer, and arrives in a radio booth to broadcast the story that follows to his audience. It’s a nod to Shepherd’s experience as a radio raconteur, something preserved in his short stories (his love for alliteration, endless detail, broad jokes laced with surprising twists of perspective), which were originally published in Playboy from 1964-1966 before their adaptation into A Christmas Story two decades later.

The scene lasts no more than two minutes, long enough to establish the presence of the narrator, played by Duff MacDonald, and no more. MacDonald spends the rest of the play hanging around the set’s margins, parroting Shepherd’s text, over-selling jokes, and doing little to suggest there needs to be more than a voiceover. And part of this is because a lack of surprises is baked into the play’s conception: his jokes get laughs, but as part of the phenomenon that makes audiences laugh, even when they’ve heard the joke before, even if they’ve anticipated exactly when and how the joke will land.

The script, written by Joseph Robinette, takes a story that already sentimentalizes childhood, and makes it even more treacly, adding platitudes, sweeping away some of the awkward silences that creep into the movie, which gave its view of growing up a realistic, knowing point of view, one that either anticipates or could be directly linked to descendents like The Simpsons, Freaks and Geeks, and Bad Santa. What the musical has instead is an apparition, a Scrooge-figure walking through the past, a set framed by white silhouette trees, like in a snow globe, only he is constantly warmed by his memories, rather than, now and then, struck by the distance he has travelled.

Though you can’t tell it by this production, in the adaptation process from book to film, Shepherd left out a lot of material, and some of it is hilarious, the equal of the narration made of what was kept. For example, this theatre-referencing excerpt: “To this day I can still see my father, wearing a straw hat, swearing under his breath, walking around a shattered plastic lady’s leg, a Freudian image to make Edward Albee’s best efforts pale in insignificance.” The difference between adapting a work with the door ajar, letting in something new, unfamiliar, and not, is that with so much the same, most of the actors are casted and forced to perform as impressionists, not actors.

Of course, this changes when the songs are brought in: written by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose work encompasses a musical adaptation of another film, Dogfight (“the songs are merely serviceable … emotions are described, but not transmitted,” the New Yorker summarized), and the television show Smash, each song clearly understands the timing and structure this genre demands. But as Erik Piepenburg, reporting on the creation of A Christmas Story for the New York Times, wrote, “The creators face the problem of how to stay loyal to the film without regurgitating it.”

And the songs mainly accomplish two things: they turn the dialogue, already ubiquitous outside of the movie itself, into catchphrases and hooks, and they reinforce, rather than comment on, the story’s era. When Matt Palmer, playing the Old Man, slips into a song with bravado, something familiar to audiences of the Arts Club’s Godspell, he gets a chorus line, jazz hands, strip tease number about his crossword-puzzle wizardry (“The Genius on Cleveland Street / A Major Award”).

Meanwhile, Meghan Gardiner, as the mother, is one of the few to not imitate the role as it was played in the film, where Melinda Dillon’s caring-to-the-point-of-strain silliness was, in a way, the most theatrical part of the film besides Ralphie’s fantasies. But all that leaves is an Angel in the House role, with an aggressively stereotypical song (“What a Mother Does”) to match. This is a musical that takes pains to avoid the cultural shift signalled by Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause that would come a few years after the time A Christmas Story is set, and which Shepherd was writing in the wake of (and referenced: there’s a soliloquoy on pop art accompanying the Old Man’s infatuation with his leg lamp).

But of course, this isn’t a play set in an arts-focused capital: it’s set in a blue-collar town in the American mid-west. As Shepherd writes, “History has always been vague in Indiana.” Yet this too is omitted in the musical. The movie’s heart is felt at several levels: the town, the house, and Ralphie. Depicting the scope of more than a few blocks is inherently difficult on a stage, but its character, which comes to be felt in the house through Bob Clark’s direction in the movie, where necessities are the order of dinners, electricity bills, bedrooms, and other rules, and is one of the prime reasons a general store display window and a magazine-advertised toy rifle have such a glow of exceptional power about them, is missing.

The set looks like an immaculate model home. Where in the film there’s hardly any space to imagine the invitation of extended family or friends over, here we have to assume the lack of visitors is because the four-member American family is basically self-sufficient. The crossword puzzle, more than a vaguely stupid dad’s attempt to look like an expert, represented the way companies dangled prizes and money above the heads of Depression-era families full of want, not unlike the lottery tickets of today. This is originally done, through Shepherd’s radio wit, in a way that never seems overly serious. Perhaps the adapters of this story felt that task too lofty to even try on the stage, and decided their time was better spent instead on inventing strobe-lit slow-motion gags. It effectively erases Shepherd’s combination of hopes and hopeless reality, as when he wrote the following: “Nestled picturesquely between the looming steel mills and the verminously aromatic oil refineries and encircled by a colorful conglomerate of city dumps and fetid rivers, our northern Indiana town was and is the very essence of the Midwestern industrial heartland of the nation.”