PTC’s high-energy cast serves up enjoyable, family-friendly “Christmas Story”

Sat Dec 10, 2022 at 11:45 am
By Catherine Reese Newton
Soren Ray as Ralphie (center) with Don Noble and ensemble in Pioneer Theater Company’s production of A Christmas Story: The Musical. Photo: BW Productions

Most people in Pioneer Theatre Company’s audience already own the 1983 film A Christmas Story or know how to find one of the marathon screenings on cable TV. So why would one venture out to the theater to see the decade-old musical version?

On its own, A Christmas Story: The Musical doesn’t make a terribly convincing case. But director-choreographer Karen Azenberg and her high-energy cast more than make up for any shortcomings in the material. Azenberg strikes just the right tone in delivering an evening that’s wholesome enough for children and witty enough to keep the grown-ups entertained.

The story, set in 1940s Indiana, revolves around nine-year-old Ralphie Parker, who desperately yearns for a Red Ryder Carbine-Action BB Gun. Mack Boyer (alternating with Soren Ray) is a marvel in the role. He sings with ebullience and accuracy, even when galloping all over the stage on a stick horse in “Ralphie to the Rescue,” one of the musical’s many delightful fantasy sequences. His stage presence is natural and winsome; the scene in which Ralphie tries to hide his disappointment on Christmas morning is beautifully acted.

Boyer receives strong support from a dozen talented children. Asher Nehring, as younger brother Randy, shows a fine comic touch and harmonizes skillfully with Boyer. The other children in the cast sing and dance like pros; Daniel Sorokine is a standout as the unfortunate Flick. A similarly sized adult ensemble zips through the production numbers. The brass- and wind-heavy pit orchestra overpowered them at first on Friday but was quickly reined in by conductor Helen Gregory.

Danny Bernardy and Stacie Bono, as Ralphie’s parents, convey real affection for each other and their children. Owing to a chest cold, Stacie Bono acted the role of Mother on opening night while Stephanie Maloney sang from the wings. (The effect misfired only once; otherwise, Maloney’s vocals aptly reflected the warmth of Bono’s stage performance.) Bernardy delivers The Old Man’s string of faux obscenities, including “Fahrvergnügen” and “Chuck-a-Rama,” with panache, while Bono makes Mother’s exasperation and forbearance equally believable.

Photo: BW Productions

Creators Joseph Robinette (book) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) have given a handful of songs to the parents in an effort to flesh out the characters—or perhaps to give the boy playing Ralphie a breather. These songs feel redundant but are serviceable enough: “The Genius on Cleveland Street” gives The Old Man a chance to do more than bluster, while “What a Mother Does” makes the subtext of under-appreciated Mother clear to anyone who might have missed it. “A Major Award,” on the other hand, does full justice to one of the film’s most iconic scenes, and Bernardy is in top form joining the dancing lamps in a kick line.

Author Jean Shepherd, who based Ralphie on his childhood self, was the unseen narrator in the Christmas Story film. In the musical, the narrator occupies a liminal space—addressing the audience directly, never speaking to the characters, but occasionally handing them props. Don Noble’s performance in PTC’s production is less droll and more matter-of-fact than Shepherd’s.

The musical offers few surprises to anyone who has seen the movie; Friday’s audience laughed at all the punchlines before the characters delivered them. And most of the tunes aren’t as instantly indelible as “Ralphie to the Rescue,” which is probably why it pops up two or three times. 

The most fun comes from Azenberg’s clever stage pictures, James Noone’s charming snow-globe set (including a priceless crayon-picture backdrop for “Ralphie to the Rescue”), and Azenberg’s pitch-perfect choreography. For example, the fantasy sequence set in a speakeasy, featuring the strict schoolteacher Miss Shields as a flapper, could so easily have gone wrong, but in the hands of EJ Zimmerman and her backup dancers it’s both innocent and irresistible—an apt encapsulation of this jolly production.

A Christmas Story: The Musical plays through Christmas Eve.

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