A Christmas Story

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A Christmas Story

Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ, December 20, 2015
Reviewed by Chip Deffaa for Cabaret Scenes
(:-R): Hudson Loverro (Randy), Colton Maurer (Ralphie), Elena Shaddow (Mother) and Chris Hoch (The Old Man). Photo: Billy Bustamante
(L-R): Hudson Loverro (Randy), Colton Maurer (Ralphie), Elena Shaddow (Mother) and Chris Hoch (The Old Man).
Photo: Billy Bustamante

For decades, Jean Shepherd (1921-1999) enjoyed unique success as an American storyteller. Without using a written script, he could hold audiences with his semi-autobiographical yarns, whether on the radio (for many years based on WOR in New York City, later on WBAI) or in concert halls or college auditoriums. (He was a great favorite at the university I attended, Princeton, where he spoke annually for 30 years.)

He’d serve up simple little slices of life that we could all relate to recalling, perhaps, a trip in a car with his family as a kid in Depression-era Indiana; getting chewed out by “my Old Man” (as he invariably called his father); or the time a boyhood pal accepted a dare that he probably shouldn’t have. His stories were personal, heartfelt, and curiously universal. Shepherd  didn’t just entertain people, he touched people. His anecdotes could be about the slightest of incidents. He was creating dramas out of “nothing” long before Seinfeld–who’s cited him as an important influence. Shepherd gathered his stories into well-received books, too, the best-remembered being In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. And then he helped adapt some of those same stories into a film that he co-wrote and narrated, A Christmas Story.

The huge success of the film probably made it inevitable that someone would eventually try to turn A Christmas Story into a Broadway musical. I saw the stage adaptation when it opened on Broadway a few years ago, and now I’ve also seen the new production at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. I’ve been underwhelmed both times.

It’s the kind of show I want to love, because I love the source material. But the intimate little stories that worked so well on the radio, on the printed page, and on the movie screen, work less well in this big musical theater adaptation. It feels awfully tame, meandering, pat, and predictable. It is an episodic kind of musical, and most of the little stories—involving a boy, his brother, his parents, and a few friends—don’t really make for big Broadway musical moments. They might work better in a small Off-Broadway type of show.

Paper Mill has mounted the musical handsomely, with set design by Walt Spangler, who designed the show for Broadway and the national tour. The young lead, Colton Maurer, starred in the national tour, as well, and gives a workmanlike, if uninspired performance. Elena Shaddow (who was terrific when she starred in The Sound of Music at Paper Mill) is appropriately warm and tender as the mother. Chris Hoch is fine as the gruff “Old Man,” and Danette Holden (who was fun in Cagney Off-Broadway at the York Theatre) is a delight as the school teacher, Miss Shields.  I just wish these pros had better material to work with.

Choreographer Mara Newberry Greer gets to shine with one number that works brilliantly—the show-stopping fantasy nightclub scene. It’s a rare bit of razzle-dazzle in a mostly very gentle, very low-key little musical— too low-key for my tastes. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have come up with some winning songs; they are excellent songwriters, and always come through with some rewarding numbers. Director Brandon Ivie tells the stories clearly. But the show, too often, feels obvious, a faint echo of the original material. Joseph Robinette, who wrote the libretto, has labored valiantly to preserve key scenes from the film, but somehow much of the magic has been lost along the way. We’re left with an amiable show, with some moments that work very well, and many more that feel like filler.


Chip Deffaa

Chip Deffaa is the author of 16 published plays and eight published books, and the producer of 24 albums. For 18 years he covered entertainment, including music and theater, for The New York Post. In his youth, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He is a graduate of Princeton University and a trustee of the Princeton "Tiger" magazine. He wrote and directed such Off-Broadway successes as "George M. Cohan Tonight!" and "One Night with Fanny Brice." His shows have been performed everywhere from London to Edinburgh to Seoul. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society, NARAS, and ASCAP. He’s won the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award, the IRNE Award, and a New Jersey Press Association Award. Please visit: www.chipdeffaa.com.