As a Broadway-style holiday spectacular, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's world-premiere production of A Christmas Story, The Musical! is a wild success, a show boiling over with invention and joy. Joseph Robinette (book) and Scott Davenport Richards (music and lyrics) have crossbred state-of-the-art musical-theater dazzle with Jean Shepherd's warm tale of a boy yearning for a Red Ryder BB gun.
The humble Indiana town of the 1983 movie now has the pulse of 42nd Street. Men dance with their snow shovels, every woman knows the Charleston, and that scandalous leg-shaped lamp has inspired a kick line.
As little Ralphie drafts an elementary-school essay on what he wants for Christmas, he sings a love song to a gun and imagines using it to frighten bullies, pirates, gangsters and beasts. These adversaries parade onto the stage, all singing and dancing, each more absurd than the last in a number that keeps one-upping itself, as if director Eric Rosen's bag of tricks were Santa's sack itself. By the time the yeti showed up, I was reveling in that what-next bliss peculiar to musical-theater showstoppers.
The price of the spectacle, however, is intimacy. The numbers inflate Ralphie's longing for that gun to something verging on parody, despite good work from both James Judy as the narrator entrusted with Shepherd's prose and Zachary Carter Sayle as the boy. Ralphie's desire seems more goofy than intense, even when the songs emphasize the power fantasy in wishing for a gun. The songs boast catchy hooks and some clever rhymes, but I wish they were more earnest. Even at the Christmas-morning climax, it just doesn't seem to matter whether Ralphie actually gets that gun.
The well-drawn family dynamic of the movie also suffers. John Bolton, as Ralphie's foulmouthed father, contributes the evening's finest dancing, but he's hardly enough of a lug to frighten his children. A key moment in the second act involves Ralphie's terror of the punishment he'll receive when his father learns of a schoolyard fight. Ralphie's mother (played with a brusque tenderness by Anne L. Nathan) understands and downplays the incident when the dad gets home from work. If the father seemed as capable of rage as he was of the Lindy Hop, this might have stirred real emotion.
Amid the comic set pieces — the "fudge" shouting and flagpole licking — one song achieves real feeling. After a marital dust-up sends both parents out of the house, Ralphie and his brother, Randy (the hilarious Jake Bennett Siegfried), fearfully imagine that their parents might not come back. It's the show's most truthful moment, equaling the showstoppers as an example of all that a musical can do.
After resolving the gun plot, the show peters along for a couple of sentimental scenes centered on the family. But too little time has been spent on the family before this, and that family never feels quite real anyway. With its human core diminished, A Christmas Story is grand entertainment but rarely consequential. The opening crowd gave it a thunderous standing O, but I didn't see a damp eye in the house.
At the Coterie Theatre, director Ric Averill also coaxes fine work from kids. His Little House on the Prairie requires that the Lauras (either Mattie Faith Bell or Chloe Wells, depending on the day) shape into fuller selves right before our eyes.
Thanks to them and Pamela Sterling's wise script, the show hardly needs songs to move its audience. But it has them whenever the cast strikes up an old-time folk tune such as "Old Dan Tucker" on fiddle and guitar. This gives Martin Buchanan and Nicholas Gehlfuss chances to jig and holler (a serious plus) even while focusing the audience's attention on how life has changed since the homestead days — if you wanted to hear music, you had to find someone to play it for you or do it yourself.
Averill and his wife, Jeanne, play Laura's parents with the gruff economy of good folks in a hard land. Pamela Sterling's adaptation gives the father a modern conscience regarding the government's treatment of American Indians, and Averill stages a grim yet noble Trail of Tears tableau. Buchanan also plays an excitable dog, which the Coterie's young audience roared for, and Tabitha Pease's set suggests the enormity of the American West as well as the solid safety of home, in a little house just barely fastened to the untamed plains.