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A Christmas Story: The Musical – Marriott Theatre

Transporting Chicagoland audiences back to the days following the Great Depression, when money was tight and everyone was struggling just to survive, a man wanders through hoards of frugal shoppers on a busy downtown street. As he passes a Salvation Army Santa with his bell and bucket, the man recalls one particular Christmas when he was nine years old, and the special gift he hoped to receive. Jean Shepherd then proceeds to walk down memory lane, reliving the events and dreams of his his youth.  

Now an annual Christmas event, a local television station runs nonstop showings of a certain beloved film that’s become a new holiday classic. “A Christmas Story” touched the hearts of movie audiences in 1983 with its nostalgic depiction of the weeks leading up to the holidays in 1940’s Indiana. The film is centered around Ralphie, a young boy whose impassioned dream is of Santa Claus bringing him the best Christmas present ever: a “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB gun, with a compass in the stock, and a thing for telling time.”  

Several years later, prolific playwright Joseph Robinette adapted the film into the libretto for a musical version of Jean Shepherd’s semi-fictional memoir, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul joined forces to compose the bright, bubbly score and lyrics for the musical. Although their songs aren’t especially memorable, they skillfully manage to translate the major events of the film into lively tunes, splashy production numbers and even a couple of lovely ballads. After several out-of-town tryouts, many regional productions and a National Tour, the musical opened on Broadway in 2012. Now, the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is presenting a near-perfect production of this holiday favorite in their unique, arena-style venue.

Every significant moment of the film has been faithfully recreated in this musical. As in the movie, Jean Shepherd takes us on this trip down his past, narrating all the events and reveling in the fond memories. Ralphie drops hints that he wants that special BB gun. He leaves ads around the house for his parents to find, writes a “What I Want For Christmas” essay at school for his teacher, and even stands in line for two hours to tell the Santa Claus at Higbee’s Department Store about his Christmas wish. But the only response he ever receives from anyone is, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas, Ralphie’s father, dubbed The Old Man, fights a never-ending battle with the furnace, battles the neighbor’s pack of baying hounds, wins a provocative leg lamp, a “Major Award,” for solving a crossword puzzle and teaches Ralphie the finer points of changing a flat tire. Between his colorful fantasies about owning the BB gun, Ralphie is tormented by schoolyard bullies, learns to fight back, lets go with the F-word during an especially frustrating moment, watches helplessly as his friend is dared to stick his tongue to the flagpole and is forced to model a pink bunny pajama onesie, a Christmas gift from his elderly aunt. And, when Christmas dinner goes to the dogs, The Old Man saves the day by treating everyone to Peking duck and chow mein at the local Chinese restaurant. The musical concludes with the entire company singing the beautiful title song.

Masterfully directed by one of Chicago’s finest, Scott Weinstein, with musical direction by Ryan T. Nelson and choreography by Tiffany Krause, this production features a 30-member cast of gifted and talented performers, many of whom are school age superstars. Heading the cast is young Kavon Newman as Ralphie, with Keegan Gulledge playing the part at select performances. This youngster, who boasts a broad resume of productions from all over the country, has the voice of an angel and the tapping feet of Fred Astaire. Master Gulledge is absolutely terrific in this role. With songs like “It All Comes Down to Christmas,” “When You’re a Wimp” and “Ralphie to the Rescue” this winning young Thespian leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that he has a future on Broadway.

With equal brilliance and talent, lovely Chicago musical actress Sara Reinecke and handsome, hearty Lorenzo Rush, Jr. bring brio and brilliance to the roles of Mom and The Old Man. Both actors not only give empathetic, truthful and loving performances as Ralphie’s parents, but they offer superb comic timing and exquisite vocal prowess. Together they musically proclaim “The Genius on Cleveland Street” and boast of “A Major Award,” while Ms. Reinecke has the show’s best solo ballads with “What a Mother Does” and the poignant “Just Like That.”

The always reliable powerhouse talent, Jenna Coker-Jones, makes a funny, but no-nonsense teacher as Miss Shields, pulling out all the stops leading a dazzling ensemble tap number in “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.” Levi Merlo is adorable as little Randy, Ralphie’s younger brother. The role is also played by Thomas Murphy Molony at select performances. In fact, all the remarkably multitalented children in this company are sensational, with special kudos going to Braden Crothers as Scut Farkus, Elin Joy Seiler as Grover Dill, Jaxon Mitchell as Flick, and Maya Keane and Jordyn Helvie as two especially dynamic singing/dancing schoolgirls and chorines, Nancy and Mary Beth.

One of Chicago’s finest actors, Kevin McKillip is perfection as the Narrator of this story. Mr. McKillip introduces us to Jean Shepherd as he begins the writer’s holiday radio program. He’s instantly transported back to his hometown where pleasant remembrances, and a longing for a more innocent, simple time, recall fond memories of that one, special Christmas. Jackson Evans, always a welcome addition to any production, plays several roles. However the hilarious Mr. Evans, a Jeff-nominated actor for “Beauty and the Beast” at Paramount, portrays a particularly sassy, somewhat sloshed Santa Claus, who is one of the production’s highlights, especially in a musical number called “Up on Santa’s Lap.”

Scott Weinstein’s dazzling direction is ably supported by an army of unseen heroes. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s sparse scenic design allows every patron to see clearly from any section of the audience. Anthony Churchill’s projections augment Kmiec’s set design, allowing various locales to magically appear on the flatscreen monitors that hang above the stage. Jesse Klug illuminates the production with his carefully plotted lighting design. Colorful, period-appropriate costumes by Izumi Inaba, especially her hilarious dancing leg lamp chorus, take us back to 1940, embellished with authentic wig designs by Miguel A. Armstrong and Christine Reszel. These artists all add spice and detail to the production. Tiffany Krause’s choreography is spectacular, particularly her show-stopping ensemble tap number, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.”And Ryan T. Nelson’s usual expert musical direction is front and center, especially heard in the Marriott’s nine-member orchestra, skillfully conducted by keyboard player, Kevin Reeks.

Marriott’s fabulous, family-friendly holiday musical doesn’t feature ghosts, like “A Christmas Carol,” or a grumpy green gremlin, as in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” or even an unusually tall Santa’s helper, as in “Elf, the Musical.” But this is a funny, poignant, heartwarming holiday story that, thanks to the popular 1983 film that inspired it, has become another Christmas classic. “When It All Comes Down to Christmas,” audiences will find a whole lot to like in this incredible, infectious story of a very realistic Midwestern family and the dreams of one special, endearing little boy.