“A Christmas Story: The Musical,” which is at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Jan. 3 , is a thoroughly old-fashioned family entertainment — wholesome and homespun, and devoid of pop-culture references, off-color jokes (beyond the mildest ones imaginable) or snarky sarcasm. These characters deal with mundane real-life problems: Schoolyard bullies and flat tires and the neighbor’s barking dogs. Toy guns inspire adults to warn, “you’ll shoot your eye out,” and parents react with shock and wash their children’s mouths out with soap, literally, if an obscenity is heard.
The 2012 play was adapted from a 1983 movie that was adapted, in turn, from a 1966 novel by legendary radio raconteur Jean Shepherd, drawing from his own Indiana childhood. It’s set in the 1940s, and it truly gives the impression of being from the ’40s, not from the ’60s or the ’80s or now.
This is a handsome-looking production, and the child actors — including Colton Maurer as the main character, Ralphie — are amazingly assured and professional. (Judah Immanuel alternates with Maurer as Ralphie, but I saw only Maurer.) There are flaws, though, and they have to do with the musical itself. The songs (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) move the action along but don’t really stick in your head. And the story doesn’t have much of a narrative flow.
That’s right, the main problem with “A Christmas Story” is, oddly enough, the story. Or, I should say, the lack thereof: Joseph Robinette, who wrote the book, doesn’t really have one to tell, but just strings together a series of amusing episodes and fantasy sequences.
Ralphie, it seems, wants a air rifle for Christmas. But his parents resist the idea. He comes up with some schemes to help his cause, none of which amount to much. There’s a big twist at the end, but it doesn’t have anything to do with any of Ralphie’s attempts to get what he wants — or, really, anything that has come before.
As I said, not much of a story.
The characters, including Ralphie’s doofus dad (Chris Hoch) and long-suffering mom (Elena Shaddow), seem to have come straight out of a sitcom. Shepherd himself (played by Ted Koch) serves as the narrator, adding writerly comments such as “They (Ralphie’s parents) looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.”
Koch, who also plays various characters besides the narrator along the way, has just the right presence — warm, wry, slightly amused — for the subject matter. I liked an acerbic touch that came in towards the end, via a nasty department store Santa. And yes, even though I felt immune to most of the musical’s charms, I couldn’t help but get caught up a little in the uplift of the sentimental ending.
“A Christmas Story: The Musical” isn’t terrible. It’s just nothing to get excited about. And it’s will be more enjoyable, probably, for the truly young than for their more sophisticated tween or teen brothers and sisters. Or their parents.
For ticket information, visit PaperMill.org.