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THEATER REVIEW: 'A Christmas Story: The Musical'

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Just in time for the holidays, The Players has unwrapped “A Christmas Story: The Musical.” Yes, you heard right: they made a musical out of “A Christmas Story.”

(“They,” as-in playwright Joseph Robinette and composers and lyricists, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.) The only question is: What took them so long?

When it comes to holiday classics, that movie is right up there with “A Christmas Carol” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Thanks to repeated viewings, lines from Bob Clark’s 1983 film adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s fictionalized memoirs of his pre-W.W. II Indiana childhood are burned on the brains of millions. On opening night, audience members were reciting them — “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”-style. (Critic’s note: Unless you’re in the cast or it is “Rocky Horror,” please don’t. Thanks.) Now, back to the review …

Many Christmas musicals celebrate the sacred story behind it all. This isn’t one of them. As the kids on “South Park” observed, Christmas is about one very important thing: presents. In this case, a child’s mad obsession with a BB-gun, specifically, an “official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” The kid doing the obsessing is Ralphie, the stand-in for Shepherd. His parents and every adult authority figure in sight tell him, “No. You’ll shoot your eye out.” Eyesight aside, at December’s dawn, Ralphie begins a stealthy campaign of manipulation to achieve his heart’s desire. Along the way, tongues are stuck to frozen flagpoles, bullies are trounced and his father (aka “The Old Man”) wins a “Major Award” in the form of a lascivious leg lamp. In case you’re one of the five people in America who hasn’t seen the movie, I won’t tell you if Ralphie gets the rifle or not — but what do you think?

It’s a delightfully unsentimental view of childhood. At one point, Ralphie says the “F-word.” Mom demands to know where he heard it. Ralphie knows that if he says, “Dad,” the Old Man will never buy him that BB-gun — so he fingers his innocent friend Flick (Noah Kunkel), instead. Flick gets loudly whipped, off stage. Not cute, eh? No. But an honest depiction of pitiless, preteen realpolitik. I also liked the cold efficiency of the department store Santa’s receiving line. (Saint Nick gives the kids a few seconds to state their requests before an unsmiling Elf ejects them on a slide.)

The busy Berry Ayers directs and choreographs, coordinates the music, and puts in an appearance as a stereotypical Chinese waiter. (A child’s distorted memory, fine. We’ll let that one go.) Ayers has the audience eating out of his hand from the gitgo. Most were movie fans, preloaded with visions of sugarplums, flag poles and leg lamps dancing in their heads. But the material’s funny even if you’d never seen the original.

Judah Woomert has a strong stage presence as Ralphie — acting in character, not just hamming it up. He has a clear, distinct voice and you can actually understand what he was saying — always a plus in a child actor. Ryan Modjeski is funny as his food-hating younger brother, Andy. Props also to Kunkel’s long-suffering, lamppost-licking, scapegoated Flick. Jeffery Kin hits it out of the park with his take on “The Old Man.” Great physical comedy; great take on a long-suffering, old-school Dad with a heart of gold who’s wound a little too tight. Kin is thin, but I felt echoes of Jackie Gleason in his characterization. Alyssa Goudy’s sprightly spin on Ralphie’s mom reminds me of the matriarch on “That 70s Show.” Kay Siebold is hilarious as Ralphie’s tight-laced teacher, Miss Shields — especially in a fantasy sequence where she appears in a spangly cocktail dress and belts out a Sophie Tucker-style torch song. Allen Kretschmar has a perfect radio voice, and is ideal as the adult Shepherd, narrating his dreams of childhood.

But there’s a truth to those dreams. Not always pretty.

The story has a cynical edge. Surprisingly, that makes it all the more warm. Shepherd’s characters are flawed human beings, not plaster saints: real people, so the love that they share feels real. Hip doesn’t mean hateful, kids. And let’s be clear. This holiday tale is anything but square.

The original movie is such a beloved chestnut, it’s easy to forget its hip origins. The source material grew out of Shepherd’s pre-“Prairie Home” radio raps on WOR in New York City. His friend, Shel Silverstein (a hipster from the days when hip was cool, baby), suggested he turn his monologues into a novel. Shepherd protested, “I’m not a writer.” Silverstein, in an amazing act of loyalty, transcribed his friend’s monologues, then helped him edit them into prose. “In God We Trust, All Other’s Pay Cash” was the result. “A Christmas Story” and “A Christmas Story: The Musical” were the delayed results.

How hip is that?

“A Christmas Story: The Musical” runs through Dec. 21, at The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information, call 365-2494 or visit



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