Excellent “A Christmas Story, the musical” – tour (review)

Thoroughly surprising, superbly entertaining, and exquisitely designed, A Christmas Story, the musical makes a two week stop at the Fisher Theater in Detroit. And the show is awesome fun. Don’t hesitate and get tickets now before they are gobbled up over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend…

Like the best adaptations, the musical doesn’t just mimic the movie (although the requisite lines and scenes are all there) but expands on it and adds its own layer of musical theater storytelling. With book by Joseph Robinette and Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it moves swiftly along through its many (23) scenes, and its smoothly and creatively directed by John Rando and choreographed by Warren Carlyle.

Everything looks great on Walt Spangler’s set (halfway through the show, you’ll find yourself wondering where all that stuff fits backstage) and its dressed lovingly in Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s costumes. Set both in 1975 and 1940, the production flows effortlessly between the two eras. Gene Weygandt plays Jean Shepherd narrating a Christmas Eve radio show, with his sidekick foley artist (sound effects) Nick Gaswirth. But it doesn’t stay there — throughout the production Gene/Jean joins the action in the 40’s story that he is narrating, and its an effect that works well throughout the production.

The entire cast is strong (and how thrilling to see so many University of Michigan Musical Theater program alumni involved with this show –from music and lyrics to actors….unless I missed I few, I counted 8 of them)…and adults and kids fare equally well. At my performance, Carl Kimbrough performed Ralphie. I am going back later this week to see Clarke Hallum in the part (yes, I loved the show that much). Rachel Bay Jones creates an excellent mother in a role expanded from the movie, and John Bolton delivers a mesmerizing performance as the father — in a part in which he practically channels the spirit of Paul Lynde in a superb outing. The many kids in the show act, dance (and tap!) their way through many sequences and songs and don’t miss a beat keeping up with the adults in all the fun.

The sole misstep in the production comes at the end, when the clever, ironic, and nod-nod-wink-wink cleverness suddenly dissolves into a couple minutes of holiday-cheer and family-dreck. It’s not off-putting, but it puts a damper on what has come before. Thankfully, it’s followed by a clever and funny curtain call that sends you out of the theater humming. Yes, really. The show has a hummable infectious score that contains a few bonefide new showtune standards. If you want the music on CD, you have to purchase it in the theater lobby, it won’t be released publicly until the fall of 2012.

So, what are you waiting for? Get your tickets before they are gone, and the tour moves on. Hopefully it will be back again next season, because this is a Christmas story that you can see over and over again. Its the first show in years that has toured Detroit pre-Broadway that really deserves to be there next Christmas. See it here first.

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