It’s an odd thing about holiday season musicals. On one hand, they’re often very successful – at least between November and January – with a large supply of family audiences ready to give themselves over and have a good time. For precisely the same reason, though, critics usually don’t treat them seriously as theatre.
So I’m pleased to report that A Christmas Story – based on the much-adored film, with a tuneful score by up-and-comers Justin Paul and Benj Pasek – is more than just a crowd pleaser. It’s a fine show, well delivered at the Walnut Street Theatre, and likely to entertain audiences of all ages and levels of discernment.
A Christmas Story is quirky and refreshingly unpredictable. Its opening chords have an almost Aaron Copland-esque quality, and seem to promise Americana seen through a nostalgic lens. Sure enough, some of the show – the tale of a young boy named Ralphie (played by endearing, clarion-voiced Craig Mulhern, Jr.) growing up in small town Indiana in the 1940s – is exactly that. There’s a sweetness to this aspect of A Christmas Story that isn’t entirely suited to the Walnut’s shiny, highly animated production – as though a tiny, handcrafted wooden doll had been packaged like an action figure.
But wait – there’s more. It’s not long before A Christmas Story takes off in surprising new directions, veering almost into surrealism. Exit Garrison Keillor, enter Salvador Dalí! – there’s even a big number about a lamp whose base looks like a can-can dancer’s leg. Quite a bit of the show is bold, deliberately weird, and funny – and these parts are superbly realized in the Walnut Street production.
Among the fine cast, I’ll single out Bill Van Horn (playing the narrator) and Lyn Philistine (the mother) for their sincerity and charm, and Ellie Mooney (as a prim teacher who is more fun than she looks) and Fran Prisco (a brash Santa Claus) for rafter-raising star turns. Christopher Sutton (the father) is charming and clearly a crowd pleaser, but for my taste, too fussy.
Whether the whole of A Christmas Story fits together is a question I’m not sure I can answer. There may be audiences who resist its central premise. (The Christmas gift Ralphie wants more than anything is a BB gun.) You’ll need to accept on faith that the ‘40s were a simpler time. These questions apply equally to the movie, by the way, which is largely captured lovingly and faithfully in the musical.
Yet few will be able to resist its sparkle. What’s Christmas for, if not over-idealizing hearth and home (and leg-lamps and artillery)? Santa, beware! The warmth and energy of A Christmas Story could easily thaw the North Pole.
A Christmas Story, Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., through January 10. walnutstreettheatre.org