With its current production of “A Christmas Story,” Toby’s Dinner and Show has ventured into an area where angels might fear to tread: staging a Broadway-style musical version of the much-beloved holiday classic film.
While it is difficult to imagine the worldly sophistication of Broadway melding well with the rural simplicity of “A Christmas Story,” Toby’s manages to accomplish this feat handsomely. The musical numbers are engaging and, even better, Toby’s somehow manages to improve on aspects of an already-beloved story, providing a level of sympathetic humanity to the parents not as evident in other versions that this reviewer has seen.
The original movie, made in 1983, is based on the recollections of Jean Shepherd, a famous radio raconteur formerly on radio station WOR in New York City. Shepherd would narrate tales of his childhood growing up in the Midwest of the 1930s and 1940s, and these stories became the basis for the famous film. His stories are distinctive because they include elements of nostalgia, but also sometimes-embarrassing childhood mishaps to which most children (and adults who were once children) can relate. These include being told that a desired toy is too dangerous, being dressed in embarrassing costumes, and witnessing difficult-to-comprehend squabbles between parents. The film has also given rise to several common tropes seen or heard in American culture, such as the phrase “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” and the notorious lamp shaped like a woman’s leg.
This production of “A Christmas Story” has many musical numbers, which make the production still recognizable and yet striking for those who have seen the film previously. The story still focuses on Ralphie’s real-life experiences as well as events from his imagination in Christmastime 1940, one year before the United States’ entry into World War II. It is the imagined events which often serve as the nucleus for the musical numbers – melodic extravaganzas which at times feature can-can dancers of the Old West, a tap-dancing teacher, and recreations of stereotypical film-noir characters.
As usual, Toby’s does an outstanding job of producing the musical numbers. However, it is the well-delineated presentation of the characters which, to this reviewer, adds heretofore unseen depth to the show in its portrayal of family interactions. The father (or “Old Man,” as the narrator calls him) is wonderfully portrayed by the talented Toby’s regular Jeffrey Shankle.
The 1983 movie appears to show the father as thoughtless and insensitive, particularly regarding his adoration for a tasteless lamp shaped like a dancer’s leg. This production shows us a bit more, for the lamp is more than a lamp: it is the only prize that the father has ever won through competition, and it means much to a person living in an insignificant small town. Winning the lamp in a crossword puzzle contest brings him new-found confidence and self-esteem, as he explains in his splashy song and dance “A Major Award.” He fears that his wife, however, in her criticism of the lamp, is attempting to thwart his victory.
Here is where all stops are pulled out, and the musical distances itself from the original movie. The scene is a good moment for director Shawn Kettering and choreographers Tina Marie DeSimone and Mark Minnick, who expertly bring out Broadway stylistics while crafting and explicating human dramas embedded in, but not necessarily brought out, in non-Toby’s versions of the shows.
Other very different musical numbers reflect on the American wilderness of Ralphie’s detached-from-reality childhood imagination. In Wild West time-period costumes, his teacher, Miss Shields, and other ensemble members burst out into the musical number “Ralphie to the Rescue.” Meanwhile, Ralphie imagines himself as a Western hero fighting off gangsters with his dream Christmas present, a Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot Range Model air rifle – in short, a BB gun. John Poncy, who portrayed Ralphie, sings this song with remarkable verve and style.
Other noteworthy scenes and musical numbers focus on school and classroom. One is the well-known scene in which the character of Flick (well-played by Jezrael Agbor) accepts a dare of sticking his tongue against the flagpole and getting into a “Sticky Situation.” Ralphie’s teacher, Miss Shields (portrayed by the charismatic Jessica Bennett), has a particularly show-stopping dance number, which recalls the flapper era.
One of Ralphie’s ideas for attaining his long-dreamt-of Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas is to tell Santa in person, that is, at a store-based Santa at a department store. The associated musical numbers (“At Higbees” and “Up in Santa’s Lap”) present the mischievous elves in an almost Germanic way (Europeans have a less favorable view of elves than do Americans) to great comedic effect.
This production captures wonderfully many of the comical aspects of reflecting on childhood, yet it is also, at times, quite touching as well. This reviewer recommends enthusiastically making your own Christmas story memorable this holiday season by attending “A Christmas Story” at Toby’s Dinner and Show in Columbia, Maryland!