'A Christmas Story' review: Engaging cast bring holiday cheer to Croswell stage
Courtesy of The Croswell Opera House
Whenever a beloved holiday classic, or really any iconic film, is given the movie-to-musical treatment, it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the cash grab. From mediocre adaptations “Pretty Woman” and “Carrie” to newer fan favorites “Moulin Rouge” and “‘Mean Girls” the writers are tasked with expanding an already established property beyond the original creators intentions. In the case of “A Christmas Story,” which has an iffy book by Joseph Robinette, and music by Michigan alums Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, you’re only as good as the cast you put together on stage, and The Croswell Opera House has mightily assembled a team of youngsters and adults to create a delightful experience despite some technical blemishes that plagued the opening night performance.
Directed by Debra Calabrese and under the musical and vocal direction of Raymond Novak and Wynne Marsh, The Croswell’s “A Christmas Story: The Musical” has a solid group of talent who elevate the script’s generic and pandering qualities. All the signature “Christmas Story” moments are displayed in full force: from the symbolic leg lamp (which is now given a full blown musical number) to “show mommy how the piggies eat,” devout fans will find plenty worth raving about; plus the young cast (made up of a wide variety of age groups) are easy to root for. They’re having a blast which leaves the audience eager for more.
Led by Croswell staple William E. McCloskey playing Jean Shepherd (aka the narrator of the story) and the young Reed Schwieterman as Ralphie, “A Christmas Story” doesn’t offer much surprise (narratively) but a few of the tunes, namely “Ralphie to the Rescue,” have still lingered in my head days after seeing it. Of course, the tale of Ralphie vying for an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model bb gun and his quest to convince Mother (a wholesome Kyrie Crist who I wish had more to do but Robinette’s script underwrites the part) and The Old Man (an enigmatic Steven Kiss) to get him one for Christmas. Despite the resistance, (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”), he never gives up and often spends time in class dreaming of all the methods he'd use to stop bullies and save the day while brandishing his prized Red Ryder (which is brought to spectacular life in the aforementioned “Ralphie to the Rescue”).
All the exploits are underscored with beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking narration by McCloskey who carries a major load of the show (he could read passages of encyclopedias and I’d buy them), while Schwieterman enlivens The Croswell stage with a wonderful presence and excellent physical performance. Likewise for the entire ensemble of young up and comers who I hope will continue pursuing theatre because they left the opening night crowd on their feet. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for how some of the songs are written and interwoven into the show, this company belted their hearts out and kept the momentum alive even when things outside of their control intermittently took me out of the experience; including several moments where the lightning wasn’t in sync with the cast and I was losing facial expressions and entire dance sequences.
As for the rest of the cast, Chris Stack hilariously embodies Santa (and sings alongside his elves in the catchy “Up on Santa’s Lap”); Garrett Ensign impresses as Ralphie’s younger brother Randy (his vocal cadence and delivery sounds, verbatim, like Ian Petrella from the motion picture); and a quartet of named characters ranging from Ralphie’s best friends to school-yard bullies played by Philip Buechele-Sloan, Tyler Roan, Sophia Bernard, and Gage Sterling earn high marks next to their peers. But don’t sleep on Crist and Kiss playing the dynamic mother/father duo who have wonderful chemistry and perfect comedic timing. All the banter and side conversation happening between them generate scorns of laughs alongside Schwieterman’s irreplaceable performance as Ralphie.
Despite some technical miscues on the lightening and scene transition front, Dave Nelms' design went above and beyond at creating a lifelike version of the iconic home we remember from the 1983 film; Meanwhile Pam Krage’s costuming is tremendous; Chris Goosman’s sound design, aside from the occasional hiccup, was nearly flawless and the live orchestration proved a cheery highlight. Even if nobody asked for “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” when you’re in this good of company, it’s hard not to get swept up in the holiday spirit and be grateful you went along for the sleigh ride.
The Croswell’s A CHRISTMAS STORY continues through December 12th. Tickets can be purchased at Croswell.org