Theater Review: A CHRISTMAS STORY (San Diego Musical Theatre at Horton Grand)

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by Milo Shapiro on December 13, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


While it may seem a bit premature to call the 1983 movie A Christmas Story a “classic,” the near- universal popularity of the film and its nostalgic look back at a Christmas in 1940 certainly give it that feeling. True to the film, based on stories by Jean Shepherd, we meet the classic mid-century small town family: The Parkers. We have the hard working, somewhat-grumpy father (Jake Millgard), the sweet, core-of-the-family Mom (Heidi Meyer), whiny kinder-aged brother Randy (Abraham German), and finally, our hero, Ralphie (JP Wishchuk), age 9. We learn of his hopes and dreams (centered primarily on how to get the Red Ryder BB Gun he craves for Christmas). The story is delivered through both the scenes/songs enacted by Wishchuk and by a running commentary from a more reflective visage of Ralphie at around age 60 (Steve Gunderson, seated in a chair at the edge of the stage for the whole production). Gunderson vibrantly inserts the detailed childish thoughts behind Wishchuk’s exaggerated facials.

Because of the reverence many have to this film, interpreting it too much would immediately subject it to the “That’s-not-how-I-know-this-story!” reaction. Wisely, Joseph Robinette choose to create the book surprisingly close to the film’s story and does so ably, considering the amount of time that must be devoted to songs and a great deal of dance. In part, Robinette and, accordingly, SDMT succeed because of the outstanding scenic design by Mathys Herbert. Not only does it beautifully convey each setting (including two height levels to convey upstairs and a hillside behind the school), but it is quickly and seemingly-effortlessly converted from the Parker home into the school yard into the schoolroom − without being at all minimalist.

As for Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs, they occasionally fall into the trap of “Hmm…we probably need a song here,” but they primarily succeed with wonderful character portrayals and grand dance numbers, particularly in “A Major Award.” If you like tap, choreographer Jill Gorrie gives it several chances to shine, first in “Ralphie to the Rescue” and even more impressively as school teacher Miss Shields (Barbara Schoenhofer) excels in the fantasy montage, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.” As good as the dancing is in many places, there’s also a lot of great physical work throughout created between Gorrie and director Kirsten Chandler.

Perhaps the most delightful part (especially just after reviewing Diversionary Theatre’s The Santaland Diaries) was seeing, put to song and dance, Ralphie’s nightmare store visit with the frustrated Santa, as rushed-along kids are ceremoniously dumped down a chute by bitter elves.

One frustration – and it’s one that comes up periodically with SDMT shows – is that attendees miss half of the words in Ralphie’s big opening number “It All Comes Down to Christmas” because of the volume of the live band, under Don Le Master’s direction. A pity because, other than the issue with that one number, the band does flawless work. Janet Pitcher and Peter Herman, on costumes and wig respectively, yield lots of fun surprises, going all out in elfdom.

Wishchuk feels a bit older than the Peter Billingsley we remember so well from the film, but that may even add to the character’s believability. Wishchuk captures the loveable spirit of Ralphie and is ahead of his years as a singer and dancer. As sweet as Melinda Dillon is in the film, Heidi Meyer may exceed her, in part due to having more chance to emote with songs like “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That.”

Enter aware that over half of the cast’s actors are tweens, as Ralphie’s classroom holds close to ten students; these young actors are singing and dancing as much as Chandler and Gorrie can make use of them. As such, the production feels at moments like a high-end youth production, but so well done that it only adds to the holiday charm. The program is highly-family, with the possible exception of the overtones of the father’s foul mouth, referenced through “frigger-fracking, song of a bees wax” kinds of replacements for what only we adults know he is really saying.

If this film brings up the Christmas spirit in you, come enjoy the musical interpretation. It’s good holiday fun…and much safer than a Red Ryder BB gun!

photos by Ken Jacques courtesy of SDMT

A Christmas Story
San Diego Musical Theatre
Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 4; Sun at 2
ends on ends on Dec 29, 2019
for tickets, call 858.560.5740 or visit SDMT

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