The creative forces involved in this unpretentiously slick, undeniably enjoyable musical version of 1983 MGM film and TBS marathon-TV fave “A Christmas Story” make so many smart choices that you want to ask them what they want for Christmas. With original star Peter Billingsley on board as a producer, the show, appearing in Chicago after a mini-tour of five cities, demonstrates just the right type of respect for the material, and honors above all its ability to capture a tone generated by the central character’s imaginative, pre-pubescent worldview.
You realize you’re in safe hands from the start, when book writer John Robinette solves one of the first challenges of adapting the film: its voice-over narration. He frames the entire show as a radio broadcast by the tale’s original teller, writer and radio star Jean Shepherd, portrayed here by Chicago thesp Gene Weygandt. The superb Weygandt nimbly keeps both the story — it’s all about Ralphie wanting that rifle — and the tone of literate nostalgia on track, and there’s intelligent detail down to the costume design (by Elizabeth Beth Clancy) that dresses Shepherd and alter ego Ralphie in a way that connects them closely together. An on-stage Foley artist (Nick Gaswirth) brings a simple theatricality to tough-to-stage scenes, such as whenever the neighbor’s hounds hound Ralphie’s Old Man (John Bolton).
Another stocking stuffer is director John Rando’s (“Urinetown”) casting and guidance of the kid actors. Clarke Hallum is a serious discovery here, as was Billingsley in the original. He’s a youngster with a combo of unforced charisma, delightfully pure singing voice and polished comic timing. And, as kid brother Randy, Matthew Lewis makes a virtue of believable whining.
Maybe most importantly, even if the score from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is more Americana pastiche than anything else, the duo always chooses the right sequences to musicalize and get the tone right even if the tune isn’t especially memorable.
The movie’s fantasy sequences of Ralphie popping off bad guys with his BB gun becomes the extended production number “Ralphie to the Rescue!,” which appropriately sounds like an old-time western theme song. Choreographer Warren Carlyle is at his best here as well.
For the sequence in which Ralphie’s friend Flick (Nicholas Daniel Gonzalez) sticks his tongue to a frozen flagpole, Pasek and Paul come up with a very clever song, “A Sticky Situation,” intended as a double-entendre for the stuck tongue and for Ralphie’s dilemma about not wanting to get in trouble but feeling guilty that his friend needs help. The scene feels a bit rushed, but you can see intelligent creativity at work.
If there is a place where the team goes overboard, it’s an obsession with the kitschiest element of the original, the stockinged leg-lamp that the Old Man receives as a prize for the contest he entered and insists on sticking proudly in the front window. It inspires the show’s biggest production number, “A Major Award,” where the entire cast dances around with various-sized copies of the lamp.
In addition, the father is so fully fleshed here that in comparison Rachel Bay Jones’ Mother feels even more taken-for-granted. She gets a saccharine song about sweet sacrifice (“What a Mother Does”), and another heartfelt but gooey one about perspective (“Just Like That”), but it would be nice to let her become more than just an idealized image. (One possibility: Give her the song “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!,” currently delivered by Ralphie’s teacher, as an expression of her genuine but outsized fear for her kid’s well-being.)
With a cast of 30, this is a big show playing a giant house, but it avoids feeling overblown. Walt Spangler’s set design is smart both for its mobility and for its nod to Depression-era modesty. And, with Weygandt and Hallum firmly anchoring us in Ralphie’s relatable and fanciful imagination, the show, like the film, has character in the fullest sense of the word, and brings us back not just to a particular era but to the perspective of the kids who imagine Santa’s sleigh in the song “Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana.”