While watching the Spotlight Theatre’s joyous opening-night performance of A Christmas Story: The Musical, I could feel the nostalgia and love for the material coming from much of the audience. The 1983 film is an iconic holiday flick, and it was fun to witness this production’s viewers follow along already knowing the story.
Set in Indiana in December of 1940, A Christmas Story: The Musical concerns Ralphie Parker, whose big-ticket item on his list for Santa is a BB gun: a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle (with a thing that tells time built right into its stock), to be exact. Nearly the entire story is set around his longing for it, as well as the happiness, struggles, and strangeness that comes with growing up and being a family during the holidays.
In the late 2000s, I played Randy alongside my actual brother's Ralphie in Davenport Junior Theatre's non-musical take on A Christmas Story, and I watched the movie every holiday season for much of my childhood. Yet while I am nostalgic for this material, as Friday night's patrons clearly were, the world has changed drastically since its creation. This story is not harmful on a surface level, but I couldn't help thinking about the looming issue of gun violence in America. A story about a young boy wanting a gun for Christmas and dreaming about fighting off bullies with it didn’t sit well with me, and as Scrooge-y as this may sound, I hope other audience members had the same reaction, too.
Yet that didn't completely stop me completely from enjoying this Christmas Story, as the creativity on and offstage was wonderfully done. Director Chris Tracy’s production moved quickly, and exuded much energy thanks to all of the actors. With the cast largely filled with youth talent, it was heartening to see so many talented young performers shine and have fun onstage.
Protagonist Ralphie is played by Liam Knobloch, whose characterization included some sensational angst, wonder, and liveliness. He played off his fellow castmates well, and delivered excellent facial reactions – similar to actor Peter Billingsley's in the film as Ralphie's inner thoughts are narrated. The musical's actual narrator, an older version of Ralphie, found Kevin Maynard offering a great portrayal in conjunction with his younger self, as well as enjoyable commentary during Ralphie’s interior monologues. His younger brother Randy, meanwhile, is played by Brighton Greim, who nailed the “I can’t put my arms down!” scene. There's also a touching song between the two brothers near the show’s end that was a nice musical addition.
Portraying the boys’ mother and father (“The Old Man”) are Spotlight co-owner Sarah Tubbs and Doug Alderman, with their characters presented as more grounded than their kids – a smart choice. Tubbs’ beautiful voice soared in her ballad about being a mom, while Alderman provided comedic nonchalance and was selective in revealing his emotions, which he did when The Old Man won his Grand Prize, and in his great song involving leg lamps. Yes, multiple leg lamps.
Playing Ralphie's pals Schwartz and Flick are Rooney Dennis and Henrick Senne, both of whom added lots of energy to their scenes and played beautifully alongside Knobloch. (Senne and company also performed an entertaining, well-staged take on the infamous triple-dog-dare flagpole scene that I won’t ruin by describing.) Mrs. Schwartz is played by Amelia Fischer, who has a hilarious brief phone exchange with Tubbs and Dennis, while the roles of bullies Farkus and Dill are assumed by the dynamic duo of Will Emerle and Cooper Tubbs. There was commanding, comical contrast between these two, and one of the show's most impressive moments was the tap number “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” – a show-stopper in which Emerle’s dance skills proved a great addition.
Miss Shields (the teacher) and Santa (you know, the big guy in the red clothes) were respectively portrayed by Kristen Marietta and Noah Hill, both of whom played their characters as slimy, creating a terrific counterpoint to the younger characters and demonstrating how kids view adults in their world. And with a talented and expressive ensemble rounding out the cast, Tracy's show also boasts slow-motion moments – as it does during the mall-Santa scene and the father-son tire-changing bit – that were impressively acted and staged.
Feeling more like a play with music than a traditional musical, the songs here often came during dream sequences or other iconic moments, and the space's sound quality made things difficult to hear at times. But with the ensemble led by music director Katie Griswold, the musicality sounded incredible nonetheless. Scenic designer Noah Hill and props master Sarah Greim provided simple, clean, and effective elements that I admired, and I thought it was great that most scenes – especially those in the Parker family’s house – were presented downstage. (The mall-Santa sequence, though, with its memorable slide, was very far upstage, and I think some of the humor was consequently lost). Although the follow-spot was a bit dim and adding a few more instruments would’ve helped illuminate the action, Brent Tubbs' design contrast between the more realistic scenes and the absurd daydreams was fun, and as the costumes at the Spotlight never disappoint, Heather Blair’s designs were no different. All of them were period-appropriate but boasted a lot of life, and I especially liked the leg lamps and Wild West outfits.
Overall, A Christmas Story: The Musical is fun and festive, and well-produced by a lively company. If you are a fan of the original movie, this musical production will not disappoint.
A Christmas Story: The Musical runs at the Spotlight Theatre (1800 Seventh Avenue, Moline IL) through December 11, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)912-7647 and visiting TheSpotLightTheatreQC.com.