Walnut Street Theatre delivers its annual dose of seasonal entertainment with the Philadelphia premiere of A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL. Based on the popular movie of 1983 (adapted from the best-selling book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash by radio personality Jean Shepherd), the old-fashioned holiday spectacular (book by Joseph Robinette; music and lyrics by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek) features a high-spirited ensemble of more than three dozen actors (and two adorable scene-stealing dogs!), singing, tap-dancing, and making their way through the funny and touching memories of childhood, family, and lessons learned in one unforgettable December past.
Set in Indiana in 1940, the nostalgic view of Christmas-time hopes, fantasies, and actuality is narrated by raconteur Shepherd (Bill Van Horn), as seen through the eyes of Ralphie Parker (the prodigiously talented Craig Mulhern Jr.)—a nine-year-old Midwestern Everykid who dreams of finding a Red Ryder BB gun among his presents under the tree. But he doesn’t just dream; he does everything he can to make it happen, including writing about it in his school essay, visiting a crotchety Santa (Fran Prisco), fighting the town bully, lying to his parents (Walnut Street favorites Christopher Sutton and his real-life wife Lyn Philistine), ‘helping’ his quirky father change a flat tire, and revealing his fervent wish for “the greatest Christmas gift ever” to his mother–who, like his teacher (the hilarious Ellie Mooney), expresses her concern that “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!”
The writing is natural and familiar, creating an account of 20th-century life that is becoming increasingly distant history to current audiences, with vintage (and sometimes thankfully outdated) references to telegrams, a car battery for an ‘Olds’ that cost $6, meat-heavy meals of ham, turkey, meatloaf, and Dinty Moore stew, double-dog dares (fueling the clueless Flick, well played by Josiah Jacoby, to lick a frozen flagpole), nonsensical circumlocutions for curse-words, Chinese restaurants, boys playing with guns, and stay-at-home housewives who tirelessly hold the family together (expressed in the sentimental ballad “What a Mother Does”). The songs (music and vocal direction by Douglass G. Lutz) and choreography (Linda Goodrich) are masterfully performed by a top-notch live orchestra and all-around terrific cast, including slow-motion segments, a wacky chorus-line dance with tacky leg-lamps, and especially rousing fantasy sequences of “Ralphie to the Rescue!”—in which the somewhat nerdy young protagonist imagines himself a gun-toting cowboy hero in the Wild West. Director James Rocco keeps the pace moving, the laughs coming, and the memories flooding, making the show appropriate fare for adults and kids alike.
The impressive changing set (by J Branson) and lighting (Paul Black) capture all the sparkle and wonder of the season, from starlit streets with wreath-decked lampposts to a festive Santa’s Station at the local department store to a proscenium arch decorated with giant-sized ‘40s-style wrapping paper and gift tags, while also recreating the comfort and intimacy of an ordinary middle-class home of the period, with a clever cut-away doll’s house design. Costumes (Mary Folino) evoke both the era (with closely matched clothes for Shepherd and his childhood alter-ego Ralphie) and the season (with colorful elf outfits and an unwanted pink bunny suit from an out-of-touch aunt).
Will Ralphie’s dream come true? Will he survive the season with both eyes intact? Will the Parkers have a Merry Christmas, despite all the unexpected everyday obstacles they face? And above all, will the narrator’s reflections through the hindsight of adulthood reveal the true meaning and joy of a holiday spent with now-departed family? You can count on it, in this humorous and affectionate view of treasured old times.
[825 Walnut Street] November 10, 2015-January 10, 2016; walnutstreettheatre.org.