Marriott’s A Christmas Story lights the furnace in the coldest of Grinch hearts.
No matter your views on Christmas and the bulging Santa’s sack of psycho/socio/political/familial drama wrapped up in the sparkle-plenty holiday, this much I know is true: If you aren’t moved to snorts and/or tears of laughter by Lorenzo Rush Jr. weaving a Vatican-worthy tapestry worth of exceptionally innovative cuss words as The Old Man in Marriott Theatre’s production of A Christmas Story, The Musical, check your cold, cold heart. You may be in danger of going full-on Grinch.
Ditto if you remain unmoved by the abject mortification of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker (Kavon Newman opening night, Keegan Gulledge at some performances) as he’s forced to model a bunny rabbit onesie.
Based on the 1983 movie A Christmas Story (which in turn was inspired by the autobiographical stories in Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash), A Christmas Story, The Musical (book by Joseph Robinette, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) takes place in 1940 suburban Indiana. It is 23 days before Christmas when the show opens and Ralphie has but one thing on his mind: the Red Ryder carbine action BB gun he desperately wants to find under the tree.
The plot, such as it is, circles around Ralphie’s march to Christmas morning victory. It’s an uphill climb, requiring careful strategy and laborious homework assignments. The Old Man is preoccupied with the malfunctioning furnace and the neighbors’ cacophonous dogs. Mother (Sara Reinecke, charming in a woefully underwritten part) holds fast to the iconic “you’ll put an eye out” argument. Santa, in residence at the local department store, is drunk and hates kids more than Crumpet.
Ralphie soldiers on because the Red Ryder is a portal to greatness. With gun in hand, he will no longer be Ralphie the bespectacled elementary school wimp, target of playground bullies like the dreaded Scut Farkus (Braden Crothers). With the Red Ryder, Ralphie will transform into a hero capable of taking down enemy hordes, be they pursuing his family or his teacher Miss Shields (Jenna Coker-Jones) across the wild kitchens and classrooms of suburbia.
Director Scott Weinstein’s funny, full-hearted production puts the light on more than Rush’s orchestral cursing capabilities or an adorable ensemble of children that fully embody the slightly manic, rambunctious joy that ramps up in grade-schoolers in the final days before Santa’s arrival.
While Ralphie plots and pines for the present that will transform his life, The Old Man does the same—albeit via different methodology. The Old Man constantly enters mail-in contests. When he finally wins one (thanks to Mother’s crossword smarts), he celebrates like he’s been awarded the Nobel Prize. “The Genius on Cleveland Street,” led by Rush flying fleet-footed through Tiffany Krause’s choreography, is the show’s musical highlight.
The yearnings of both Ralphie and The Old Man make for great comedy as well as great commentary on the absurd insidiousness of commercialism and the false promises of advertising. Both father and son have pinned their very identities on objects that they believe will not just improve those identities, but change their very lives.
As it was in 1940, so it is today: At one point or another, we all believe that something we can only buy will make us better—more interesting, more heroic, sexier, smarter, safer. It’s a marketing strategy that works with everything from toys to eyeliner to real estate.
At Christmas, maybe all we really need is a turkey destroyed by the neighbor’s frickinfrackinforkmuthatuckinggourdamdagnibitty dogs and the company of people who love us.