Marriott’s ‘Christmas Story’ is the warmth audiences need
In reference to the heart, that human organ oft-associated with emotions, "cockles" refer to its four chambers (two atria, two ventricles). When it’s said something "warms the cockles of our heart," it’s an attempt to credit that which makes our hearts beat faster and creates that warm and fuzzy feeling.
Perhaps the phrase, along with its truncated, “heartwarming,” rings as cliché. But it’s fair to guess that, for many, those feelings come few and far between. So let’s enjoy them when they’re offered.
This is why patrons of Chicagoland musical theatre need accept this invitation to Lincolnshire for Marriott Theatre’s stunningly uplifting musical production of A Christmas Story.
A part of Midwestern consciousness since its non-musical film debut in 1983, A Christmas Story is a post-Depression slice of life centered around humorist Jean Shepherd's recollections of childhood life in Hohman, Indiana (read: Hammond) in the month before Christmas. Ralphie Parker (read: young Jean) dreams of receiving a “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB gun with a compass in the stock, and a thing for telling time,” the best possible Christmas present in the history of Christmas presents.
Unlike so many movies-turned-musicals, this tuneful presentation actually enhances its telling. Benj Pasek’s and Justin Paul’s buoyant score helps bring out the best in the main characters and highlight Marriott’s strong, large ensemble cast. Several all-cast production numbers and a few lovely ballads help add joy to this comfortable, fictional world.
At Marriott, Kevin McKillip as adult narrator Shepherd splendidly relives his Ralphie-boyhood memories, most of which involve the adults intoning “You’ll shoot your eye out!” If there’s a musical Jeff for a non-singing part, McKillip wins, hands down.
He brilliantly sets up a terrifically gifted cast featuring the talented Sara Reinecke and Lorenzo Rush, Jr. as Mother and The Old Man, and Jenna Coker-Jones as schoolmarm Miss Shields. The parents get some of the show’s best songs; Rush dominates “The Genius on Cleveland Street,” while Reinecke croons the tender ballads, “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That.” Coker-Jones slays in the high-energy ensemble number, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.”
On opening night, Kavon Newman showed himself as a star in the making as Ralphie. (Keegan Gulledge shares the role.) “It All Comes Down to Christmas” and “Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana” are special highlights. The role of Ralphie’s little brother Randy is lovingly shared by Levi Merlo and Thomas Murphy Molony. An ensemble cast of thirty triple-threats execute Scott Weinstein’s fantastic blocking and direction along with Tiffany Krause’s exuberant choreography to near perfection. Special shout-out to the many first-rate performers among the kids—Braden Crothers (Scut Farkus), Elin Joy Seiler (Grover Dill), Jaxon Mitchell (Flick), Braden Crothers, Jake Maverick Gabor, Jordyn Helvie, Maya Keane, and Meena Sood.
Scenically, Anthony Churchill’s projections expand Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s necessarily sparse in-the-round design. Jesse Klug’s lighting enhances the period costumes of Izumi Inaba with lovely wig designs from Miguel A. Armstrong and Christina Reszel. Ryan T. Nelson’s excellent orchestra is conducted by keyboardist Kevin Reeks.
The bottom line is that this assembly of remarkably talented professionals are sharing A Christmas Story guaranteed to warm those cockles. And who doesn’t need that?