By Leah Gehlsen Morlan
Cedar Rapids – Theatre Cedar Rapids’ (TCR) holiday show A Christmas Story: The Musical is a warm and shiny extravaganza of all the fuss and sincerity that make the holidays, well, the holidays. It’s the oft-told story of Ralphie Parker (the earnest Ian Wolverton-Weiss) and his bittersweet and gently (or occasionally raucously) funny tale of a memorable childhood Christmas. Ralphie is ushered through the holiday season by his Old Man (Greg Smith), Mother (Gretchen Hunt), and his adorable, snowpants-hindered, snuffling brother Randy (scene-stealer Ben Joens). Like the movie we all know and love, this musical is narrated (by stand-out Duane Larson). Lucky for us, the musical utilizes most of the clever language Jean Shepherd originally included in his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and wove into the film he co-wrote which we now enjoy for one whole 24-hour window every holiday season of our lives.
ACS has always been, for me, not simply representative of one child’s holiday experience, although Ralphie’s perspective is the medium and he our protagonist. This story is also, beautifully and heart-wrenchingly, about a family. It’s about how The Old Man is at once obnoxious and heartfelt in his disappointment over his busted lamp and in his Christmas morning gold-star gift-bestowing. It’s about how Mother isn’t just a tidier of rooms and of lives, she is a sweetly gluey representation of all of our moms. She knows her kids, she knows her dude, and she shepherds them through life. She’s a super-hero in mom’s clothing. The story is a slice-of-life about people just like any of us, living lives we know intimately. I imagine that it’s challenging to perform in the musical rendering of a tale folks know by heart. And I will say that I’m not terribly sure I love what the musical script does to this yarn. Because of the need for musical numbers in a musical, the moments in ACS that make the melodic cut are mainly those worthy of fantasy sequences. Which gives those fantasy sequences more narrative weight. Which makes the occasional fantasy a little closer to reality. So, The Old Man’s preoccupation with his major award looks a little grasping. Ralphie’s preoccupation with the Red Ryder B.B. gun looks a little obsessive to the detriment of all other life events. I view this as a script problem, but it bears mentioning.
That said, the elements I love about ACS (slice-of-life, intimate moments, etc., etc.), to some degree, remain intact in ACS: The Musical and require a capable cast to keep them that way. Wolverton-Weiss is charming as Ralphie. In the performance I saw, his professionalism was cleanly and clearly on display: he improv’ed his way through a missing prop, and he was a scene-stealer because he didn’t try to be. Ralphie is, above anything else, just a really good kid, and Wolverton-Weiss pulls off his performance because he’s either a lot like our Ralphie or on his way to becoming quite a good actor. I suspect it’s a bit of both. Ben Joens, as Randy Parker, is a delight. His timing is spot-on and he gives us an adorable Randy, a sidekick in sight gags. Gretchen Hunt is subdued as Mother, until she sings and it is then that she truly emotes. Her voice is lovely and was my favorite of those in the show. Greg Smith pulls this lovable ensemble together as The Old Man, throwing himself into “A Major Award” with all the sweat and circumstance of the most passionate of performances. Smith’s Old Man is a little more hungry than the one we’re used to in the film, but he’s still endearing, so the added motivation works. This version of The Old Man is also tireless and a little showy in his musical fantasy, which is hilarious and compelling. Duane Larson, our narrator, takes words we’re so used to, we could recite them in our sleep, and he gives them his own spin, he owns them for himself, which is required in his role. Very, very well-done, Mr. Larson. Emily Irwin gives Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields a little extra vitality in her performance of “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” my favorite fantasy sequence of the show. The remaining Ensemble, both children and adults, were fabulous. They made for a well-rounded, incredibly amusing show.
Scott Olinger’s lights and Bret Gothe’s scenic design are lovely. The lights particularly, are important in this show, due to the continuous “fade in-fade out” of everyone’s fantasy life. The lights were effective, subtle, playful, but never obnoxious. Visually, this show is beautiful, start-to-finish, front-to-back. The set is gorgeous, but economic in terms of allowing for playing space. Joni Sackett’s costumes are period-appropriate and pretty cinematically accurate. I also loved the playful nod to the leg lamp in the backup dancers’ costumes during “A Major Award.” Sweetly clever. Aaron Canterbury’s choreography is darling, swift, fun, but appropriate for all the ages on the stage.
The direction of this show is solid. Several characters, Ralphie included, have long-term objectives that are fairly obvious, so playing them out while keeping them fresh can be challenging, but this wasn’t an issue here. My favorite little piece of stage economy was a car front that rolled in on-stage (complete with bulging headlights) and behind which the Parker family stood during driving scenes. It was brilliant and effective.
There was some misplaced miming in the show, specifically during the scene in which Ralphie utters, “Oh fudge” while changing a car tire with The Old Man. There were no props during the tire-change and all activity was mimed. Was there an organic place for the necessary props on stage during that moment? No. Should they have been utilized anyway? Yes. It may seem like a nit-pick, but justification for a random mime in the middle of a show during which there were no other miming moments is probably required.
ACS: The Musical is a lovely holiday experience. If you’ve not been to TCR before (and I hadn’t), this is the time of year to do it. I took my five year-old to this show and he loved every minute of it, from the fancy-pants lobby to the musical numbers. There isn’t a bad seat in the house and there are several remaining show dates to choose from.