Broadway has recently seen such a steady stream of family musicals devised to rake in Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s dollars. “A Christmas Story,” as its well-known title indicates, is yet another such specimen, but one that distinguishes itself. Based on a memoir by humorist Jean Shepherd and its revered 1983 film adaptation, this tuner boasts a heartwarming but wise story, an impressive score by Broadway newcomers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, canny staging and a series of laugh-out-loud production numbers. While “Christmas Story” is a natural for kids, there’s more than enough here for grown-ups of all ages.
The now-familiar tale tells of 11-year-old Ralphie (Johnny Rabe) in small-town Indiana, circa 1940, and his Christmas quest for a Red Ryder carbine-action BB gun. His absent-minded Old Man (John Bolton) and hardworking homemaker of a mother (Erin Dilly) have other ideas, but hey — this is a Christmas story. The episodic piece is narrated by storyteller Jean Shepherd (Dan Lauria) and carried by 12-year-old Rabe, whose Ralphie is adorable and wise, and who delivers some mighty loquacious lyrics with ease. (He does six perfs a week, with alternate Joe West playing two.)
Bolton, a little-known character actor, is also very good; tall and thin, he prances around like a marionette whose strings are prone to snap, all the while bringing to mind a combination of Dick Van Dyke and Stan Laurel. Zac Ballard is cute as Ralphie’s younger brother, Randy, and Aussie actress Caroline O’Connor has fun as schoolteacher Miss Shields and as the comically distressed heroine in Ralphie’s daydreams.
Most impressive of all perhaps are the young songwriters, whose Off Broadway “Dogfight” earned mixed local notices over the summer. From their bravura 12-minute opening sequence — which artfully sets the scene, introduces the characters and sets the plot in motion — through the gentle Christmas Day anthem that wraps up the proceedings (and opens the tear ducts), they are consistently on target.
While other writers might have penned a cliche about waiting up for Santa Claus, Pasek and Paul have the kids picture him “Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana,” a poetic but perfect image. Song after song soars, helped along by strong contributions from orchestrator Larry Blank and dance arranger Glen Kelly.
Joseph Robinette’s book is funny, direct and to the point, even if the plot, like the screenplay, feels at times like a string of unrelated anecdotes. Helmer John Rando (“Urinetown”) does his best recent work with jokes and gags galore; in a “windy” scene, he thinks nothing of having a kid or two go blowing across the stage. Rando also gives us the finest recurring stage-animal gag in memory, courtesy of a pair of forlorn hounds handled by Broadway’s longtime animal trainer, Bill Berloni.
Family musicals traditionally have dance numbers for the chorus, and a specialty turn or two for the kids. Choreographer Warren Carlyle typically starts his numbers with the dancers, then adds the kids doing the same steps, building the numbers into demented delights.
Standing out is the littlest boy actor, Luke Spring. In a second-act speakeasy sequence, he’s costumed in a gangster’s pinstripe suit and turned loose to reveal an astonishing tap-dancing imp. The fortysomething O’Connor, in a moll’s red slit dress, is then drafted into a challenge dance with 9-year-old. Both turn out winners.
This holiday confection has not had an easy road along the development trail; since 2009, it’s gone through multiple songwriters, directors, choreographers and cast members. In this case, perseverance — and a willingness by producers to identify problems and make necessary changes — has paid off in a merry way indeed.