The musical version of “A Christmas Story” has opened at the John W. Engeman Theater. Based on the film which debuted in 1983, this coming-of-age saga set to song follows the adventures of Ralphie Parker, a nine-year-old who yearns for a very specific Christmas gift- a Red Ryder BB gun. It’s December 1940. Based on the remembrances of storyteller and humorist Jean Shepherd, who boasted a long career in radio, the story is a fictionalized account of his boyhood in Hammond, Indiana.
“A Christmas Story” is a very light and fanciful musical trip down memory lane. Under the direction of Richard Dolce, the musical invites us to shake that snow globe of time and journey into the home of the Parkers, a lower middle class family struggling with their share of furnace and automobile problems during the Depression Era. A tantalizing spark of nostalgia is immediately ignited as the family rushes into town where local children have gathered to gaze into the gaily decorated window of Higbee’s Department and dream of Tinkertoys ( which first appeared on the scene in 1914) and Radio Flyer wagons under the Christmas tree. Just the mention of the names of these toys of days gone-by jogs memories.
In this place of the heart which could be any small American town, life is not always rosy-colored. Bullies rule the playground at recess; a neighbor’s unruly hounds harass Mr. Parker whenever he arrives home. Despite the march of the decades, human nature and family dynamics have not changed much, and perhaps that is what has always made ‘A Christmas Story’ so endearing. The glimpse in the idiosyncrasies of this particular nuclear family reminds us of ourselves and our relationships with our own loved ones.
Yes, the peer pressure of a triple dog dare will cause someone’s tongue to get stuck to a flagpole one frigid Indiana day. And the Old Man (Steve Luker) will finally win one of the contests for which the Depression Era became known, although the Leg Lamp—a kind of sleazy prize– will not bring him the recognition he hoped for. And Ralphie will miserably don a pair of pink bunny pajamas received as a present from his Aunt Clara. The adorable little brother, Randy Parker (Griffin Reese) will suffer in his unwieldy snowsuit. Yet although we know the storyline, this is the kind of show where everyone comes away with something different.
Jean Shepherd (David Schmittou), the older and wiser “Ralphie,” does a great job of cementing us in the present as the narrator /commentator on the goings-on. Ralphie (Ethan Eisenberg), making his Engeman stage debut after appearing in regional theater, exhibits poise and a singing voice rich beyond his years.
I was particularly moved by Ralphie’s evolving interaction with his mother, played by Gina Milo, whom I loved as Muriel in Plaza Suite. Her song, “What a Mother Does,” is a beautiful ode to the stay-at-home mothers of decades past. “Just Like That,” which she sings to Ralphie after he plummets a bully and fears that he had thrown away his last chance for that longed for rifle, touched my heart. It was simplicity and profound truth all in one.
I got a particular kick out of the fantasy sequences. Kathryn Markey, who plays the teacher, Miss Shields, has a gift for physical humor. I was delighted by her performance in the fantasy sequence and song, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” for which she dons a slinky red gown and really pulls out all the stops.
“A Christmas Story” runs through January 4. The Engeman Theater is located at 250 Main St., Northport Village. Tickets can be purchased at the theater’s box office, by calling (631) 261-2900 or by visiting www.engemantheater.com.