The kids are more than all right in the spirited production of A Christmas Story, The Musical that opened Nov. 9 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. But it’s Ralphie Parker’s dad, billed as The Old Man, who generates the biggest laughs thanks to Lorenzo Rush, Jr.’s potent combination of vocal talent and total commitment to playing the most misunderstood, put-upon man in the Midwest.
The long strings of faux profanity (fauxfanity?) Rush unleashes whenever he’s beset by the neighbor’s dogs, a furnace that gives him fits or a car that seems to be well past its last mile provide a holiday soundtrack all too relatable to the stressed-out parents in the audience who find themselves laughing in recognition. When The Old Man pins his own hopes for recognition on a crossword contest (“The Genius on Cleveland Street”) and then actually lands somewhat dubious proof of his talents (“A Major Award”), Rush shines brighter than the plastic leg lamp enshrined in his living room for all the neighborhood to see.
The yearning heart of this adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s tale of his eventful 1940 Christmas in small-town Indiana remains young Ralphie and his star-crossed quest for a Daisy Red Ryder BB rifle. The role of Ralphie in this production is split between Kavon Newman and Keegan Gulledge (in select performances), who both boast impressive child-actor resumes. Newman, who took the reins on opening night, turns in a charming performance as he charts a hapless path to his prized present, battling past protective parents, a scornful Santa, an unimpressed teacher and two bullies who seem to lurk around every corner. All the beats from the movie are here, from the bunny suit to the cracked glasses, and Newman generates both laughter and sympathy as he hits them.
There was a moment, however, when I wondered how viable a show about a kid who desperately craves a gun and fantasizes about using it to cut school bullies down to size can be in 2022. It is just a BB gun, and I remember how excited I was to get one at the age of 10, but the thought did give me pause at intermission before I was drawn back into a story that does a great job getting audiences into the holiday spirit.
The ensemble cast is uniformly strong beyond Rush and Newman. In her winning turn as Mother, Sara Reinecke brings to bear a beautiful voice and sly reactions that add depth to what could be a thanklessly stereotypical role. As the margins-obsessed teacher Miss Shields, Jenna Coker-Jones provides anarchic notes reminiscent of SCTV’s Andrea Martin. And Kevin McKillip keeps the story moving with zest and good humor as Jean Shepherd himself.
But some of the most memorable moments come during the big ensemble numbers when more than 20 cast members sing and dance across the small stage of the in-the-round theatre, accompanied by an able nine-piece orchestra. Director Scott Weinstein and choreographer Tiffany Krause deliver a holiday feast of wonderful stage pictures.
I was delighted to experience this show in such an intimate setting. A production I saw at the Chicago Theatre several years ago had bigger, more complex sets, but I still felt somewhat detached from the story in the big auditorium. The Marriott is an ideal size for a show that needs to connect with the audience on a human level to succeed. It’s not a spectacular, it’s the fond childhood reminiscence of a storyteller humorist. In aiming to present a warm, winning evening of holiday entertainment, this production hits the bullseye.
A Christmas Story, The Musical runs through Jan. 1, 2023, at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. The show is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren