It is often said that the Christmas season brings out both the best and the worst in people; the same can be said of creative artists. Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” first published in London, in 1843 (he composed it in six weeks), was, even for one so popular and influential as him, a success of another order. Bob Dylan’s recently released album of Christmas songs, “Christmas in the Heart,” is a similar surprise, coming from a songwriter so identified with his own visions. Yet there are many artistic coals in stockings, from the multifarious “Carol” film adaptations to the treacly holiday albums by singers who evince little Christmas spirit in their work the rest of the year and the annual parade of so-called inspirational books by celebrities. Christmas, after all, is a time of celebration, even if it goes no further than the checkout line.
The idea of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Story, the Musical!” (which opened November 28 and runs through January 3 at Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus) is to offer a corollary production to its annual “A Christmas Carol.” The Dickens play has been a tradition at the Rep for twenty-nine years; Eric Rosen, the new artistic director, has been active in rethinking the Rep’s schedule, and like a painter re-hanging his canvas he was wise to look for another holiday play that might connect the theatergoer expectations of old for a holiday story with a new twist on the theme of family and giving.
Now, if the giving has changed from a turkey for the Crachit family to a Red Ryder BB gun, the little child at the heart of the tale has also changed, from the consumptive Tiny Tim to bespectacled, bullied Ralphie Parker, whose flights of imagination issue from the memory of Jean Shepherd. A well-known radio personality and writer (who also helped finance John Cassasvetes’ independent film “Shadows” and interviewed The Beatles in “Playboy,” where his fiction regularly appeared), Shepherd’s brand of humor, half-quaint, half-crank (supposedly, his radio rants inspired Paddy Chayefsky’s TV monologues in “Network”), sits somewhere between James Thurber’s round-about recounting of his days in Ohio and Garrison Keillor’s faux-small town Lake Wobegon stories. It is nostalgia with a kick in the pants.
The Rep’s musical follows the 1983 film adaptation that Shepherd himself wrote with his wife, Leigh Brown, and director Bob Clark (itself a secondary outgrowth of Shepherd’s original 1965 story that, too, appeared in “Playboy”). Joseph Robinette’s book faithfully follows the film, from Ralphie’s disorderly home-life with the profane paterfamilias ever just getting away from the neighbor’s dogs, to the antics at school and the bullies on the walk home. The biggest differences in this theatrical adaptation are the songs and music written by Scott Davenport Richards. An accomplished serious composer and actor (his father is the late Lloyd Richards, the formidable theater director), Scott Richards’ score is responsible for both adding to the film and keeping pace with filmgoers’ memories. While he has composed an operatic work based on Charles Mingus’s life, he has also collaborated with E. B. White on a musical version of “Charlotte’s Web”; his “Christmas Story” lyrics fall somewhere in between: snarky yet never too Sondheim-sophisticated in their wordplay to leave anyone out of the laughs.
Customarily, musicals “opened up” as movies have had to find mutual ways to respect the conventions of both mediums. Usually, it means taking advantage of cinema’s space—all those extras, all those extra songs and choreography—without forgetting the original material’s theater-bound earth-ness. Thus, Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” and upcoming “Nine” take full advantage of filmic tricks to blow out numbers that would be inconceivable, even with all the technology in Andrew Lloyd Weber productions and others. As for the reverse, taking on a film and trying to re-sync it as a theatrical vehicle (especially a musical like “A Christmas Story, the Musical!”), the collaborators must look not to the source material but to themselves.
The director, Eric Rosen, marshals his creative team to present a view of the film. Where Darren McGavin’s Old Man was an iron horse of cursing and garbled invective, John Bolton plays him as younger and more fleet of foot, especially in his ditzy number “A Major Award.” McGavin’s dark, dyspeptic performance befits the story, set on the eve of the Depression; it might have been better if Rosen and team had acknowledged our economic travails with a down-and-out song. Their optimistic tone throughout reflects Shepherd’s undertone—a kid’s underdog determination—and in that sense the singing and dancing about Christmas gifts and school woes does seem appropriate.
The performers are comfortably adjusted to their roles more as caricatures than as characters. Zachary Carter Sayle recalls the film Ralphie’s Peter Billingsley in size and shape (he has copied Billingsley’s Edvard Munch “Scream” look later perfected by Macaulay Culkin in “Home Alone”). The bully Scut Farcus, as played by Troy Doherty, lacks the bluster of the film Farcus—but then, hey, it is a musical (and not “Sweeney Todd”). The young actor, one of eight in the cast, pivots well and screams when called upon. All of the children blend into the adult ensemble, particularly in the fantasy sequence “Take That” (about Ralph’s air rifle putting Farcus, pirates, gangsters and even Hitler in their places) and in their own nicely-played number “I’ ‘Uck!” (concerning the ritualistic double-dare to stick one’s tongue on a cold flag pole). Best of all is John Judy as a Shepherdesque deejay and narrator, who enters into his younger self’s imagination to keep the BB gun dream alive.
The Rep heralds “A Christmas Story, the Musical!” as a world première, in a traditional pre-Broadway tryout. For all its polish, it is a work-in-progress. The hoped-for hit song like “Tomorrow” from “Annie” or “Supercalifragilisticespialidocious” from “Mary Poppins” is absent so far, though some twenty songs easily resonate during the time spent in the theater. Happily, the original humor (when the Old Man pronounces “fragile” inscribed on a wooden box with an Italian accent as “fra-gee-lay”) is accounted for; and when the show takes off on the film’s incidents, such as turning the frozen tongue ordeal or the leg lampshade prize into big musical numbers, it truly moves onto its own goofy plane. Jean Shepherd’s past was tempered with his adult knowledge that kids survive best when they grow up only enough to pay the rent. In the Rep’s version, kids still rule at Christmas, and the adults get one day off from worrying. Indeed, it is enough to make one break into song.