This year, I'm resigned to the cooling temps and falling leaves. It helps that the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's festive offering to kick off its 47th season is A Christmas Story: The Musical.
It's an adaptation of the funny, heartwarming 1983 film (which, like It's a Wonderful Life, had a lackluster theatrical release, only becoming a holiday hit after recurring TV showings). The movie was based on the writings of Jean Shepherd, who co-wrote the screenplay with wife Leigh Brown and director Bob Clark. This musical adaptation premiered in 2010, with its book by Joseph Robinette and very catchy tunes by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of Dear Evan Hansen fame. The flick spawned a franchise, including a play, five more films, and a live-broadcast production. And then there's the merch. (I have a lamp, a decoder pin, and a T-shirt.) Here, director/choreographer Ashley Becher, her performers, and her crew have whipped up one merry and delicious fudging indulgence. You don't need to know the movie to love this show.
A Christmas Story is set in the end-of-the-Depression, cusp-of-World-War-II period, when the country – the whole world – is emerging from a gloomy time, with even darker times coming. And here, during the holiday season, is a brief, poignant respite: a little spark of light for one nine-year-old boy who's desperate for one special present. Gratifyingly, Ralphie's daydreams from the movie, including saving folks from desperadoes, and his teacher (here played by a saucy Kiera Lynn) taunting him about his essay, are perfect springboards into elaborate fantasy numbers in this musical incarnation.
In Becher's production, Mark McGinn plays Jean Shepherd, the real-life storyteller who narrated the movie and is the grown-up Ralphie (though both the character and the real-life guy disavow this). As Shepherd, McGinn watches and occasionally plays a small part, affably maintaining a balance of wry adult commentary and empathy with his boy-self. Ben Pisel, making an admirable Circa '21 debut, plays young Ralphie three times a week, as well as on the Thursday night I attended. His skills are commensurate with those of seasoned performers, and he's a blast to watch. (Stage veteran Jack Carslake plays Ralphie on Wednesdays.)
Fulton Young usually plays little brother Randy, with Brighton Greim (who played Randy last year at the Spotlight Theatre) wriggling into that bulky red snowsuit at times. Young's size is inversely proportionate to his adorability, and his confident portrayal impressed me, too. Cara Chumbley, as Mother, showcases her strong, lovely voice in "What a Mother Does" and "Just Like That." She plays a quintessential mom with a dash of quirk, skillfully juggling whatever life, two boys, and an irritable husband throw her way.
Speaking of The Old Man, as Ralphie calls his dad, titan of talent Bobby Becher owns this role with his phenomenal acting, moves, and voice. This workaday underdog "curses" at the malfunctioning furnace (in a "rackin'-frackin'" not-really-cursing manner) and grumbles about bills, but evokes sympathy nonetheless, possibly because we can peek into his aspirations via musical numbers – like father, like son. In "Genius on Cleveland Street," Becher transforms The Old Man into a suave, slick, confident Song-and-Dance Man, and when the male ensemble danced in to back him up, I was entranced, and sad when the extravaganza ended. But not to worry: The Old Man gets the validation he longs for, in lamp form – and the pizzazz returns in a big way as the ensemble comes onstage in formalwear and lampshades to celebrate "A Major Award." Fantastic!
Becher's splashy numbers aren't the only dazzlers. Big voices from the smallest cast members make "When You're a Wimp" something to grin about, and hum later. And clever staging enhances the action throughout. During the raucous "Ralphie to the Rescue," instead of Ralphie wielding a Red Ryder rifle (which, even if not fired, could certainly put an eye out on the crowded stage), the firearm is personified by two women who "shoot" the bad guys as required with "BANG!" flags, aided by ricochet sound effects. Also, both big and little Ralphies twirl real ropes as lariats. O-o-o-oh … and did I mention there's tap dancing?
I tell you, this production boasts an all-star ensemble. Each has either played leading characters, or, I'm confidently predicting, will. The skill here overwhelms me. So many roles requiring different get-ups – holiday shoppers, flashy cowhands, Ralphie's schoolmates and their parents, Santa's elves, rescue workers. (Remember that flagpole scene?). I cheer for costume coordinator Bradley Robert Jensen – he always delivers, as does set designer and scenic artist Becky Meissen. Her clever, attractive sets and their palettes, together with the wardrobe's hues, are gorgeous, and lighting designer Heather Hauskins gets an approving nod for color harmonies, too.
Circa '21's latest is packed with content, yet moves briskly. The only scene that felt long to me was in Higbee's Department store, and we can blame librettist Robinette for that. (Then again, it's a Tony-nominated book, so who am I to judge?) Technically, this production ran extremely smoothly, except for body mics occasionally cutting out – but that's common, and I did attend the Thursday-night preview before Friday's opening night. After the laughs and spectacle of A Christmas Story: The Musical, I'm ready for a tree-lighting, shop-window-gazing, meatloaf-and-chop-suey-eating, major-award end to 2023.
A Christmas Story: The Musical runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island IL) through December 30, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.