The United States has never had Britain’s Christmas pantomime tradition, but the lure of holiday lucre and the strong tourist crush in New York this time of year have driven producers to turn Christmas stories into musicals in ever increasing numbers. We’ve seen “White Christmas,” “Elf,” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” all transformed into family-friendly spectacles, not to mention “Christmas Carols” of every variety.
The formula is simple — take a familiar film or story, add some showy, generic music, a tap chorus, a precocious moppet or two, and you’ve got it. It’s best, too, to set it in a time period that can be drenched in nostalgia when, as everyone knows, the holidays weren’t debased, Mom and Dad knew their place, and the world was much gentler and kinder. (The exception was “White Christmas,” which had Irving Berlin and a crackerjack, grown-up book going for it.)
While you can’t blame an enterprising producer for trying to gin up some holiday business and deliver a great big Broadway show, there isn’t enough gin in the world to wash down “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” even with its pandering genre. Based on the classic movie of the same name, the story of Ralphie Parker, a boy who wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, and the antics of his family and school in 1940 is simply insipid. Draped in gauzy sentiment, the story is the dewy reminiscence of author Jean Shepard, who is Ralphie’s older self. Joseph Robinette has replicated the movie’s storyline, but the characters he’s created are wrapping-paper thin, and other than the delight of watching a favorite flick come to life in front of you — the people behind me were, as at “Spamalot,” anticipating the lines — it’s impossible to care about them.
Ralphie becomes a boy obsessed with his desired present to the point of creepiness. Everyone tells him the gun is a bad idea because Ralphie will shoot his eye out. Think about it. How could that happen? It’s other kids’ eyes to be concerned about, right? Ralphie’s father (identified only as The Old Man — quaint, no?) is a crossword puzzle freak who rivals his son’s obsessiveness when he wins a lamp in the shape of a fishnet-stockinged leg (that shocks — shocks — the neighbors) in a contest. The Old Man proves to be nothing more than a cartoon character, even down to the gibberish he spouts, made up of sanitized obscenities. (The crisis in the plot occurs when Ralphie claims to have said, “Oh, fudge,” but actually says something unforgiveable. Guess.) There is an attempt near the end to give these characters actual human emotions, but by that time they’re so tiresome and manufactured it fails utterly.
The music and lyrics by Benj Paske and Justin Paul are bland and generic. They’re forced into the plot, and the production numbers are laughable and not in a good way. Whether The Old Man is dancing with the leg lamp in an orgy of fetishistic narcissism, Ralphie is having a Wild West fantasy, or, in the second act, the strait-laced teacher becomes a speakeasy bombshell in a crimson dress, they are all the same — just like, in fact, the specialty numbers in a traditional British pantomime. Worse yet, Warren Carlyle’s choreography is consistently uninspired, derivative, and mechanical.
One can’t deny that the cast is talented, and they do the best they can to add some entertainment to this turkey carcass. (They’ve even thrown one of those into this, along with some live dogs.) Johnny Rabe is appealing as Ralphie, and Caroline O’Connor sparkles as the teacher, Miss Shields. By far the highlight of the evening, though, is Erin Dilly as Ralphie’s mother. She has a magnificent voice as well as the only two songs in the show that make sense or have any semblance of feeling.
Not so good is Dan Lauria as Jean Shepard, the narrator. His smarm quotient is set way too high and cloys from the first scene. John Bolton pushes too hard as The Old Man, becoming tedious, ridiculous, and unbelievable as a father. Yes, this may be how Ralphie sees him, but as with so much else in this production, John Rando’s direction is muddy and confusing.
Now lest you think me a Christmas curmudgeon, there are many annual entertainments I revel in. Scrooge’s transformation — or the Grinch’s for that matter — moves me every time, and I’m always touched by Charlie Brown’s tree. “A Christmas Story: The Musical” forces the holiday spirit rather than give us real people and authentic heart. God save us, everyone.
A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL | Lunt-Fontanne Theatre | 205 W. 46th St. | Through Dec. 30; Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 7:30 p.m. | $65-$155 | ticketmaster.com