By Ruth Ross
What Dylan Thomas's prose poem, A Child's Christmas in Wales, is to millions of Welsh, Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story is to millions of Americans. Whether you heard his recitation of the tale on late-night WOR-NY radio or watched the 1983 film starring Darren McGavin as Old Man Parker and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, you are probably familiar with this iconic story of a little boy seeking a special gift—a Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model air rifle BB gun—that his teacher, his parents and even Santa think is inappropriate—and dangerous. [Above: L-R: Chris Hoch (The Old Man), Colton Maurer (Ralphie), Elena Shaddow (Mother) and Hudson Loverro (Randy) Photo by Billy Bustamante.]
Well, if you need to slake your thirst for holiday nostalgia or just want to introduce a youngster to this classic tale, head on over to Millburn's Paper Mill Playhouse for a polished, charming musical version of A Christmas Story—complete with cute kids singing and dancing; an apoplectic dad wrestling with the vicissitudes of daily life at the end of the Depression; a stoic, stalwart mother; and even a Jean Shepherd-like narrator to lead us through the tale while offering wry commentary on the antics of the Parker family of Cleveland Street in Homan, Indiana, at Christmastime 1940.
It's all there, just as you (and Jean Shepherd) remember it: the ugly leg lamp (above); the pink bunny suit; the tongue frozen to the cold flagpole; the visit to a weary, bored Santa—all set to music and dance routines (some of them show-stoppers) to produce a delectable holiday bonbon!
Using the sets, costumes and musical arrangements from the Broadway and Madison Square Garden productions, director Brandon Ivie has assembled a new cast to work its magic to delight adults and children alike. In the role of Ralphie, Colton Maurer is the perfect geek, but one who sings and dances magnificently. He may be small, but his stage presence fills the large Paper Mill Playhouse stage. His hoofing abilities are in full display in several dance numbers, most notably a Western-themed "Ralphie to the Rescue," wherein our pint-sized hero uses his new BB gun to save his classmates, teachers and friends from a variety of nefarious villains. (Judah Immanuel shares the role). Hudson Loverro, as his little brother Randy, exhibits great comedic timing; I dare you to watch him get into his one-piece snowsuit without splitting your sides laughing. He, too, sings and dances superbly, even appearing in several production numbers as part of the ensemble!
The adult actors display enough heft to avoid being upstaged by the pint-sized thespians. Ted Koch conveys the dry wit of Jean Shepherd in his role as our guide (and commentator) through the shenanigans onstage. His quiet presence is never intrusive, and one feels his wry affection for his alter-ego Ralphie. Chris Hoch (right) plays Old Man (Frank) Parker to the delicious hilt: his colorful cursing and spitting-mad demeanor (especially at being attacked by a neighbor's two hounds) are offset by a sentimental streak and a desire to be "The Genius of Cleveland Street." He's a hardworking, regular Joe who really wants to do right by his family.
Elena Shaddow plays his long-suffering spouse with stalwart stoicism; she is the quintessential 1940's mother, tending to household chores and taking good care of her children and husband. Her perky manner and lovely voice really resonate in her attempt to console her sons that all will be well with a ballad entitled "Just Like That." And as the stickler-for-maintaining-margins-when-writing fourth grade teacher, Miss Shields, Danette Holden is wound tighter than a clock, which makes her breakout performance featuring an energetic tap dance in a fantasy number set in a 1930's speakeasy to the song, "You'll Shoot Your Eyes Out"—the phrase Ralphie hears ad nauseum whenever he asks for an air rifle. (Note: How many of you readers heard those words from your parents? My mom used to say, "Everything's fine until someone loses an eye" when my brother and I were tussling on the floor!)
An ensemble of adults who play cowboys, gangsters and Christmas elves, along with a gaggle of adorable and talented kids, complete the large cast. All agilely execute Mara Newbery Greer's choreography to the accompaniment of the orchestra directed by BenWhiteley.
With a wicked book by Joseph Robinette and tuneful music and clever lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, A Christmas Story brings to life the holiday movie the whole world loves. It is a perfect gift of theater for grownups and children alike. The former will fondly recall their childhood Christmases (and Hanukkahs) while the latter will delight in the foibles and adventures of a nine-year-old boy on a quest for the perfect gift. This show almost beats a Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle—and no one risks losing an eye!
A Christmas Story will be performed eight times a week at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through January 3, 2016. For performance times and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit www.papermill.org online.
Paper Mill Playhouse will offer a special autism-friendly performance on Tuesday, December 29, at 1:30 PM.