A Christmas Story — first a radio tale, then a book, then a movie, now a Broadway musical — is a plump turducken of holiday nostalgia: memories stuffed in memories stuffed in memories, with each generation adding a new layer. First there’s the tale itself, derived from the Depression-era Indiana boyhood of late humorist Jean Shepherd, famous for Rockwellian yarns salted with just enough smarts and subversion to avoid sugar shock. Boomers embraced Shepherd’s Good Old Days, a retro vision they could imbibe without gagging. Their kids adopted the ‘83 film starring Peter Billingsley, whose creamy, bespectacled puss looked so adorably globular, it could’ve come right out of a Carvel display case. (If you grew up in the 1980s and managed to avoid the catchphrases “Oooohhhhh, fuuuuuudge!” and “You’ll shoot your eye out,” I’m guessing you lived in a barn you built yourself.)
Now the adult Billingsley (awful to picture, right?) is a producer on a sparkling new stage musical adaptation, with a surefire charmer of a score by young composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Their music sounds as if it could’ve been written 20 years ago, or 50. My, how time doesn’t fly: In the world of the Christmas Story, it’s always Nineteen Yester-Never, and a 9-year-old boy (Johnny Rabe, possibly the world’s youngest minimalist comic) is always vying for that cherished Red Ryder BB gun, a mother (Erin Dilly) is always washing dirty mouths out with soap, and the Old Man (John Bolton) is forever grappling with the muzzle-fumblin’ boiler in the basement. Shepherd possessed that timeless, Twainian slant on the human condition, capable of perennially warming the heart without clogging it full of treacle. Pasek and Paul, working arm-in-arm with book writer Joseph Robinette and director John Rando (Urinetown), understand and respect that gift, and pair it with a musical stagecraft that fits snug as an elfin legwarmer. A Christmas Story is that rarest of gifts: Enough pratfalls and live dogs on stage to divert the very young; enough genuine wit and heart and musical proficiency to please their wards and minders, many of whom, God help us, are old enough to recall seeing A Christmas Story debut in movie theaters.
The creators are greatly assisted by a cast of moppets that’ll give the urchins at Annie a run for their money in categories ranging from Eerie Precocity to Preternatural Vocal Interpretation to Tiny Tap Solo. (In a jazzy, bring-down-the-house dream sequence entitled “You’ll Put Your Eye Out,” a porcelain figurine named Luke Spring blows all our fuses with his fancy footwork.) First among equals is, of course, Ralphie (Rabe), our four-eyed hero: target of bullies, petitioner of department-store Santas, wide-eyed witness to double-dog dares. (His story is told by his adult double, Shepherd himself, played with woolen-voiced warmth by the ever-avuncular Dan Lauria.) Ralphie wants just one thing for Christmas: a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun (“with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time”). He’s trying to implant the suggestion in the mind of his resistant mother (Dilly), who thinks air guns are dangerous, and his distracted father (Bolton), who’s more concerned with winning a crossword correspondence contest and seeing his underappreciated genius ratified by some impartial entity. Eventually, the postman delivers him “A Major Award” in the form of the naughty novelty lamp shaped like a fishnetted female leg. The Old Man sinks before it in supplication — then anchors a production number of generous ridiculousness, choreographed ecstatically by a tip-top Warren Carlyle. Bolton’s significantly more rubbery than the flinty paterfamilias played by Darren McGavin in the film, but he nails that delicate balance of buffoonery, glowering threat and latent love. Dilly pulls heartstrings taut in “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That,” and then Ralphie and his helium-voiced little-brother Randy (Zac Ballard) snap ‘em in with “Before the Old Man Comes Home.”
A Christmas Story is what happens when rare respect for source material meets utter sincerity and unimpeachable talent. (Only one moment doesn’t stand the test of time: I believe Western culture may be ready to retire the familiar and beloved and, yes, ragingly offensive scene where the waitstaff of a Chinese restaurant serenade the family with “Deck de harrs with hows of horry!”) Jean Shepherd’s America — whether it ever existed or not — is in excellent hands.
A Christmas Story: The Musical is at the Lunt-Fontanne through December 30th.