The main concern of adults in the 1983 film “A Christmas Story” is that 9-year-old Ralphie will shoot his eye out with the Christmas gift he’s pining after. Any New Jersey Christmas-loving theater-goer’s fear should be missing the musical adaptation of the beloved tale currently being presented at the Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan.
Dec. 3 was a successful opening night for the theater’s wholesome performance of the book by Joseph Robinette with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The creative team put together an astounding cast to bring the vision of director and choreographer Jessica O’Brien, along with music director David Shirley, to fruition.
More importantly, the cast, many of whom are members of the Algonquin Youth Ensemble, paid homage to the film’s reputation as a nostalgic, timeless classic, keeping the original storyline at its heart.
Ralphie Parker, played by Miles Schmidt, remains the driving force of the story as he does everything in a young boy’s power to receive the Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle as a Christmas present — a plan continuously thwarted by adults, including his parents, his teacher, and even a mall Santa Claus, who all claim he’ll “shoot his eye out.”
The Jean Shepherd-written story the musical is based on is kept alive by Brendan Flanagan, who brought a visible, onstage presence to the narration rather than only voice-over, like in the movie. Flanagan’s inflection and innocent, child-like diction and recitation is so consistent one almost forgets his words are being spoken in real time and are not pre-recorded.
But Schmidt’s Algonquin debut as Ralphie solidifies him as the star of the show. He adds immense depth to the character as he delves into song and dance and has lines in almost every scene he’s in, in contrast to the child actor in the original film who was always on-screen but uttered very little dialogue. Here, the child version of Ralphie is given dimension, directly providing the audience with insight to his thoughts and feelings as he performs in many of the musical numbers.
It’s a task Schmidt carries out seamlessly, surprising the audience with a strong, crystal-clear voice that doesn’t falter as he hits high notes, all while integrating himself into choreography, whether that means a group dance number or fighting off robbers in one of Ralphie’s infamous daydreams.
Together, Flanagan and Schmidt provide a cohesive performance that’s reminiscent of the Ralphie whom viewers loved so much in the film. Yet the duo also adds so much more to him.
This is a constant theme for the production; the performance is a perfect balance of dialogue, dance and song so as to ensure it includes the nuances of the 1983 film while also creating the necessary space for 21 musical numbers that expand upon the story and its characters’ emotions.
Just as the core storyline remains intact, so do many other one-liners and iconic images that are important to the movie. From the glowing leg lamp and Chinese turkey to Randy’s blimp and the terrifying, slow-motion scene with a mall Santa (Robert Weinstein) and his elves, everything that defined the film is present in the musical.
But the stellar cast also brought the characters to life by mirroring their exact mannerisms. Schmidt managed to uncannily mimic the way Ralphie cries, while Andrew W. Jacobs, who plays Randy, Ralphie’s little brother, imitated his character’s high-pitched screams and tantrums with so much of the same scratchiness to his voice that it almost seemed like the audio was taken straight from the film. Even the bully, Scut Farkus, is played by an actor (Max DeVivo) who nailed the obnoxious, patronizing laugh he is known for.
Also able to perfectly capture his role was Anthony Greco, who plays Ralphie’s father, a.k.a the Old Man. Darren McGavin played Mr. Parker in the film as a sort of bah-humbug, forbidding man that spent most of his lines spewing obscenities about the neighbor’s dogs or the malfunctioning furnace. Greco takes on McGavin’s raspiness and grouchy temper, then adds a more outwardly comic persona. This pleasant change is evident in the song “A Major Award,” which comes about from the Old Man’s excitement and pride in winning the leg lamp.
It results in a musical number that highlights the lamp much more than in the film, as well as adding an entertaining backstory to the Old Man as someone who would do anything for a win in life.
On the other hand, JQ Hennessy — who plays Miss Shields, Ralphie’s teacher — takes the original actress’ soft, meek demeanor in the opposite direction. Though still delivering the same lines, their recitation varies greatly as Hennessy turns Miss Shields into a powerhouse of a character.
With a booming singing voice and flare for dramatics, Hennessy steals the show each time she appears onstage. An exceptionally memorable segment of the musical is the song “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” a full-blown 1920s flapper-themed number in which Miss Shields, along with a number of children, flaunt their tap-dancing abilities. Hennessy’s vocals were especially shown off, and received extensive applause.
All in all, the creative team and cast of Algonquin Arts Theatre’s “A Christmas Story: The Musical” have put together a show that fans of the original 1983 film could have few qualms about.
Remaining performances of “A Christmas Story: The Musical” take place at the Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan, Dec. 9-10 and 16-17 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 10 and 17 at 2 p.m., and Dec. 11 and 18 at 3 p.m. Visit algonquinarts.org.
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