To call A Christmas Story iconic might be a bit clichéd. To call it a classic, obvious. To mention it's among the most beloved holiday-themed films of all time, unnecessary. But, it would make these statements no less true and might even highlight the fact that year after year millions of families tune into the 24-hour marathon on TBS every December 24 and 25.
Suffice it to say, the Jean Shepherd short story-turned-movie involving a bespeckled young man, a tacky lamp, a triple-dog-dare and the quest for the ultimate present is as much a part of the American Christmas tradition as credit card debt and awkward extended-family interactions.
Clearly capitalizing on the country's seasonal love of the Parker family, back in 2000 Philip Grecian adapted the film into a stage production that's still put on every holiday season, but it wasn't until six years later that a musical theater version of the story surfaced (written by renowned playwright Joseph Robinette). It took two more years for a December 2008 (very successful) New York reading produced by Gerald Goehring, Michael F. Mitri and Michael Jenkins to roll around and four years later, a commercial tryout was finally organized.
And despite the 23 years it took to take the leap from silver screen to the musical theater stage, that initial run of A Christmas Story, The Musical! so exceeded financial and attendance expectations that it beat out Irving Berlin's White Christmas and became the premiere venue's (Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre) second best-selling production ever.
Now, for the first time ever, the show – produced, in part, by the original Ralphie, Peter Billingsly – will hit the road during the 2011 holiday season for a five city tour, and it's stopping at Detroit's own Fischer Theatre from 11/15 to 11/27.
So what is it about this production that makes it worth getting up off the couch and spending the upwards of $90 on tickets when the movie's on about every few hours during the month of December?
Well, you're going to be seeing the story as it really should be done, according to Leslie Henstock. The ensemble member and Mother Understudy says she never really liked the movie because she always thought it was meant to be a musical.
"There are just so many moments where there should clearly be a song," explains Henstock.
And she's more than happy with those songs that have finally been interjected into the story of Ralphie Parker and his hilarious quest for the ultimate Christmas present, the infamous Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and a thing that tells time.
"It's really great music, too. It's really good pop music," says Henstock. "It's the kind of music you'll leave the theater humming."
And it's not just the music that the University of Michigan graduate loves about this production.
"There's lots of roles you take just because it's what your agent got you and your friends are like 'Oh, I have to come see you in your new play." And you're like "No, no you don't." Because it's really not that good. But this show is good. It's really good," says Henstock.
Karen Mason, a veteran musical theater and cabaret actor, hadn't even seen A Christmas Story when she was asked to take the part of Miss Shields in the touring production of the musical.
"I basically took it because Benj Pasek and Justin Paul offered to write me my own song," Mason says, only half-kidding.
Aside from getting her own number, she says she was excited to work with the up-and-coming duo on something that hadn't been done before but had the makings of a classic.
"It definitely has the potential to become a perennial favorite," says Mason. "It's definitely something you could take your family to see every year."
According to Henstock, the production is really made for families with kids. Aside from the poppy music, she says the show moves quite quickly – it's a little over two hours – so kids won't get bored sitting for too long.
But what is it that sets this show apart from other holiday productions? According to Mason, it's not sloppy or sappy. It's warm and relatable. Plus, it's a show that people really want to see.
"This isn't like one of those Christmas Revues that people do every year just because it's a bunch of Christmas songs, even though it's boring," says Mason.
According to Henstock the show's greatest asset is that it's still the exact same story as the movie. Basically, if you love the film, you'll love the musical, she explains.
"They didn't add any scenes just for the sake of adding a song. All of the songs are just coming out of something that's happening in the script," she explains.
And if, like Henstock, you're not a big fan of the movie, maybe you just need to see it as a musical.
One thing she does lend to the movie is its middle class relatability; a theme she says definitely transfers to the musical. It's the imperfection of the family Christmas that she loves about both versions of the story and what she thinks audiences will fall for too.
"We all had a Christmas where everything went wrong. Like the year the Christmas tree fell over and the whole family spent the day in their sweat pants cleaning up shattered bulbs. And that year instead of getting dressed up for the family photo, everyone was in sweat pants. Those are the Christmases you remember, not the ones where everything went perfect," she says.
And A Christmas Story (neither the movie, nor the musical) certainly isn't a tale of the perfect Christmas. Whether you watch the movie every year or have only seen the film's most memorable moments over and over (and over and over and over), you know the Parker's 1940's Midwestern Christmas is somewhat less than ideal.
And while the story might be about the silly set-backs of a family trying to make the most of the most wonderful time of the year, the experience of seeing this Christmas classic is sure to be a (perhaps only nearly) perfect event. | RDW
a christmas story • 11/15-11/27 • fisher theatre • 3011 w. grand blvd., detroit • 313.872.1000 • ACHISTMASSTORYTHEMUSICAL.COM