We start this review much as the Walton Arts Center did to opening their newest Broadway musical, “A Christmas Story,” on Tuesday (Dec. 10) night.
Less than two hours before the doors opened for the show, the Walton Arts Center’s main entrance plaza was the site of a candlelight vigil held in honor of the late Stephen Carr, a Fayetteville Police Department officer who was murdered in his patrol car on Saturday night. He was 27. And because his beat included the downtown entertainment district, he no doubt frequented the Walton Arts Center during his patrols.
As Peter Lane, CEO of the Walton Arts Center, told the assembled crowd before the curtains went up, “officer Carr was like family to us.” A moment of silence was held in honor of Carr and those mourning his departure.
Lane then offered the audience a challenge to use the arts as a means of escapism.
What: “A Christmas Story”
When: Through Dec. 15
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Cost: Starting at $40 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or waltonartscenter.org
Which brings us back to “A Christmas Story,” which was adapted from the beloved 1983 movie about family, traditions and a boy’s pursuit of an elusive BB gun for Christmas. And just how beloved? A recent nationwide poll asked respondents to name their favorite Christmas movie. Residents from 24 states picked “A Christmas Story” as their favorite, including those from Arkansas. In my home state of Kansas, “A Christmas Story” wasn’t the top pick – “Die Hard” was – but nevertheless the annual 24-hour repeated showing of the film on Christmas day was a constant backdrop at my grandmother’s house growing up.
With that kind of popularity and familiarity with the source material, the work must tread lightly. Because audience members will know much of the dialogue, there’s only so far that the plot can stray away. Many of the vignettes that you would know from the film come to life in the stage show. When nine-year-old protagonist Ralphie (played alternately by Tommy Druhan and Ian Shaw) swears while helping his dad change a tire, he is forced to bite soap. When there’s a triple dog dare issued for a classmate to touch a frozen pole with his tongue, we watch the action unfold. When Ralphie misses his chance to tell Santa the gift he wants and then scales a slide to reach Santa again, we see that, too. And, importantly, when family patriarch Mr. Parker (always referred to as The Old Man) wins a contest, he is given the major award of a leg lamp, just as in the movie. A few of the movie vignettes are missing, notably Ralphie’s pursuit of clues during the radio show “Little Orphan Annie.”
The premise of a radio show is how the plot of the stage version moves along. Original story author Jean Shepherd (played in Fayetteville by Chris Carsten) opens the evening on stage behind a microphone, reminiscing his past for his own radio program. His elaborate stories come to life behind him, then in front of him as he wanders into the action.
Because the stage version of the house, a department store and a Chinese restaurant near the Parker family home all look similar to their film counterparts, what’s left to discover are the song and dance elements. One of the two is better than the other.
On the dance side of things, we get to watch the much-discussed leg lamp come to life, including a chorus of them that dance around The Old Man (played by Christopher Swan). The cancan sequence with leg lamps swinging into the air was well executed and fun. So was a fantasy dance sequence involving Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields (played by Lauren Kent) and his classmates. The number featured an extended tap segment involving about a dozen of the children that tour with this musical. It’s the kind of gratuitous scene included to give the kids a showcase piece – but this one was nearly too cute to ignore.
As for the songs, I have a program that tells me what they were, but I don’t recall any of them without looking back to that guide. The first song of the musical is “It All Comes Down to Christmas” and we’re told to panic because we’re only 21 days from the main event. Many of the other songs felt forced, too. The Old Man’s “The Genius on Cleveland Street” is the kind of major key, propulsive number that’s a staple of musical theater – and much too bright and cheery for a character I don’t recall as having many of those qualities. I can’t say any of the songs were poorly done. I thought the acting, singing and dancing were solid throughout the show, but there’s only so much an actor can do with less-than-inspiring song material.
At the heart of “A Christmas Story,” we’re left with a nostalgic look at holidays of the past. The Jean Shepherd character of the show more than once hearkens back to days gone by in his monologues. We all once had a gift we coveted, and our Christmases did revolve around the pursuit of those toys – I was a Transformers kid myself. I should note that Ralphie’s fetishizing of a gun and his dream sequences of vanquishing bad guys with it struck me in the wake of the very fresh incident of gun violence in Fayetteville and the memorial service just outside the front doors of the show’s host venue moments before the show began. It may be something for you to consider before you attend the show.
We are ultimately encouraged to consider our own Christmases, and our families. I consider “A Christmas Story” a holiday classic, like many in Arkansas, apparently. But I think I’d rather watch the movie version at my grandmother’s house over a slice of her chocolate meringue pie, if I still had that option. Or, perhaps another way to say it: The holidays are chaos. Be grateful for yours, however it works for you.