The NY Times: Yearning for a BB Gun and a Happy Family

Ethan Eisenberg plays Ralphie Parker in “A Christmas Story: The Musical.” Credit Michael DeCristofaro

Don’t expect the Ghost of Christmas Past, or any other ghost, to pop up in “A Christmas Story: The Musical.” The entertaining show playing at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport is nothing like “A Christmas Carol,” the dark-tinged tale by Charles Dickens that also became a musical. “A Christmas Story,” based on the popular 1983 film narrated by the humorist and radio personality Jean Shepherd (who also wrote the book that inspired the movie), is a sunnier Christmas yarn, centered on a child’s concern that he won’t get the present he wants.

The show, directed with warmth and buoyancy by Richard T. Dolce, is a mild-mannered, nostalgic look at a Midwestern family during the month of December in 1940. Young Ralphie Parker — splendidly played by Ethan Eisenberg — longs obsessively for a Red Ryder BB gun, which looks like a rifle. Nearly every adult in the story dismisses the 9-year-old’s request, telling him, “You’ll shoot your eye out,” but the warning is turned into a running joke rather than explored seriously.

Griffin Reese plays Ralphie’s younger brother, and Steve Luker and Gina Milo his parents.CreditMichael DeCristofaro

Theatergoers with misgivings about BB guns in the hands of children just have to suspend their queasiness. It helps that the music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are light and pleasant and that the book by Joseph Robinette deftly hits the major sweet spots relished by fans of the movie, which has become a cult favorite, frequently shown on television. Even someone who doesn’t know the movie might recognize the story’s resonant elements that are now regarded by some as iconic, like an intractable snowsuit and a tongue getting stuck to a lamppost. The musical, praised for some splashy production numbers when it came to Broadway in 2012, was a big hit — successful enough to be reprised a year later at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

The more intimate show at the Engeman is enhanced by a cast filled with very personable actors, led by the talented Mr. Eisenberg, who has a strong voice and charming presence. David Schmittou, as the narrator (named after the story’s author, Mr. Shepherd), sets the tone from the beginning with a low-key directness.

Ralphie’s parents are identified as Mother (a softly radiant Gina Milo) and the Old Man (subtly portrayed by Steve Luker as endearingly misguided). Ms. Milo beautifully sings two of the show’s most touching songs, “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That.” Mr. Luker, whose Old Man often seethes with insecurity, leads a rollicking song titled “A Major Award” after he wins a ridiculous lamp shaped like a woman’s leg in a crossword contest, which he sees as evidence of his intellectual prowess and importance in the world.

Charlotte Vaughn Raines and Larry A. Lozier Jr. are elves and Chad Jennings is Santa. CreditMichael DeCristofaro

The flashiest adult role, however, belongs to Kathryn Markey, who plays Miss Shields, Ralphie’s no-nonsense teacher. She gets to take on sexier personas in Technicolor fantasy sequences that illustrate some of Ralphie’s musings. In “Ralphie to the Rescue!” she’s part of a Wild West scene in which Ralphie imagines himself thwarting bandits and performing other heroic deeds while brandishing the BB gun he covets. Later, Ms. Markey sports a slinky red dress with side slits up to her thighs (more comical than suggestive in Tristan Raines’s witty costume design) as she stars in a dance number built around “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” (with lively choreography by Antoinette DiPietropolo).

The sets, designed by Jonathan Collins, flow seamlessly from modest Parker home to classroom to the land of imagination.

Many numbers, including one with a grumpy Santa (Chad Jennings), feature a bevy of children, most of whom alternate in their roles. (The program calls them the red cast and the green cast.) Of the group I saw, Evan Flannery stood out as a bully who terrorizes Ralphie, but all sang and danced well. Griffin Reese, who has a sweet voice, plays Randy, Ralphie’s younger brother, in all the performances.

Toward the end, the musical makes a couple of missteps — a jarringly prurient double entendre and, more disturbing, a joke involving the use of a racial stereotype. But then it shows Ralphie’s relationships with his mother and father deepen and grow. The play is, after all, about more than hankering for a gun. It’s also about yearning for a happy family.

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