The kids were all so excited and happy to be there, and it’s hard to deny how much effort went into turning the Warner Bros. backlot into a snowy Midwestern landscape. But despite an energetic and dynamic production, Fox’s “A Christmas Story Live” was a disappointing three-hour event.
This is a problem that boils down not to execution, but invention: The 1983 film “A Christmas Story” didn’t need the insertion of several musical numbers to become a touchstone of the holidays, and when the musical version came to Broadway in 2012, it only ran for a month. Yet somehow this flawed vehicle became Fox’s choice for its next live musical, following the well-regarded (and Emmy-winning) “Grease: Live” in 2016.
For viewers who love the original film, the musical didn’t look much like it. The film has an intimate quality, but the musical was a big, loud, constantly moving production. And in place of adult Ralphie as onscreen narrator, the musical placed him onstage —a ghost unseen by his younger self or the rest of his family. The effect was that adult Ralphie (Matthew Broderick) was stalking or even haunting the family of his youth, while shamelessly gossiping about them to the audience at home. It’s creepy, and the device never quite resolved itself as the musical wears on.
But in Broderick’s defense, the musical never quite resolved itself, either. It’s a choppy, flashy affair, with so many different sets that it struggled to cultivate a sense of place. Chris Diamantopoulos and Maya Rudolph, as Old Man and Mother Parker, were at ease and performing beautifully. But the production seemed to gyrate around them dizzyingly. The camera swooped through dream sequences, the Parker house, Ralphie’s classroom, and Cleveland Street with enthusiasm — but it felt disorienting, too, as if the camerawork was desperately trying to keep everything interesting. The constant cuts to commercial break didn’t help, especially because Old Navy — the show’s major sponsor — produced commercials that featured singing and dancing, just like the show itself. (In an inspired bit of consumerism, the musical designed a ‘40s-era Old Navy storefront to nestle next to the town’s big department store, Higbee’s. Presumably it’s called Really Old Navy by the locals.) And for some reason, in the first half, “The Greatest Showman” staged a live number — featuring its star Hugh Jackman — as an elaborate trailer for the upcoming film. Yet the number featured absolutely no information about what “The Greatest Showman” is about; you might end up concluding that Hugh Jackman has a cameo in “A Christmas Story.”
It felt, constantly, as if “A Christmas Story Live” was putting up distracting jazz hands — even though the performers were all perfectly competent and having a good time, even though the choreography and technical elements flowed, for the most part, with magical ease. The kids, led by Little Ralphie (Andy Walken), were a talented, funny bunch. But they appeared to be nervous in front of the camera; a few of the younger performers made worried, direct eye contact with the camera. Indeed, there were more slip-ups than expected, even during pivotal moments: Broderick flubbed some of his narration; a camera struggled to stay in focus on Diamantopoulos’ face during “It’s a Major Award”; and poor Flick (JJ Batteast) pulled his supposedly stuck tongue off the pole just when the camera zoomed in on it. These might not have stuck out so much if any of the characters had had more than a couple of minutes to develop a rapport with the audience.
The high points were the numbers where an adult — usually, a very talented performer, like Ana Gasteyer, Rudolph, Diamantopoulos, or the always fabulous Jane Krakowski — commanded the lens of the camera, the audience’s attention, and the narrative thrust of the show. But even in those numbers, the camera and the ensemble worked to distract and dazzle. Krakowski’s impressive tap dancing didn’t even get the camera angle it deserved, because of the production’s full-tilt commitment to nervously whirling in place. And as if to painfully wrench the audience out of any suspension of disbelief it may have had, almost every bumper to commercial break featured little Ralphie’s voice describing the behind-the-scenes production of “A Christmas Story Live.”
If it were a better production, it would have been easier to enjoy some of the show’s quirks: Race-blind casting made for a pretty fantasy town without segregation, which was both great and a little unsettling, like maybe racism didn’t exist, if we just all closed our eyes and believed. Gasteyer’s number, a Hanukkah song, was added to the production just for her, and was an enjoyable little excursion. But “A Christmas Story” is still drenched in nostalgia, no matter how much you try to update it, and the scenes from the film where Ralphie gets a bar of soap stuffed in his mouth — or where the family marvels, with a little bit of disgust, at the Chinese meal they are about to eat — don’t quite translate for a modern audience.
And frankly: 2017 is a weird year to produce a live TV musical about a kid that really wants a gun. Sure, it’s a BB gun, and of course, “A Christmas Story,” the film, is a sort of antidote to treacly nostalgia, with its at times quite rueful look back at the pain of growing up. But that’s what was so weird about this musical: Its content was anti-nostalgic, but the production was thoroughly nostalgic, with a sweetness that turned saccharine. It all may have been worth it to see Diamantopoulos flip (!) on stage, but this was the type of overwrought affair that encourages the Grinch in all of us.