Same old ‘Story’: ‘A Christmas Story – The Musical’ at SF Playhouse

A Christmas Story at SF Playhouse - programme

“If it’s a good work of adaptation, the book should remain a book and the film should remain a film, and you should not necessarily read the book to see the film.  If you do need that, then that means that it’s a failure.  That is what I think.”
– Marjane Satrapi, creator of Persopolis, in an interview with the website Collider, 9 August 2012

Let’s face it: nostalgia sucks. If there’s a more obvious example of the brain lying to the body (short of schizophrenia), I’ve yet to hear of it. Nostalgia leads to bad decisions and a lack – if not a flat-out refusal – of growth because one wants to cling so closely to a myopic view of the past. That’s true whether you’re a MAGA-hat-wearing right-winger or a memorized-Aaron-Sorkin’s-opening-speech-from-TheNewsroom leftie – both so long for a “return” to an idealized vision that never fully existed that they’ll forego all better judgement in an attempt to recreate that vision.

Still, there’s something to be said for finding a comfort in an earlier state of self. Adulthood is about adapting to an incessant stream of tedium and degradation; who wouldn’t long for the days when one’s only concern was what some overweight trespasser in a red pilgrim suit would leave under the sap-dripping thistle-tower you put up near the window? So long as you aren’t consumed by the idea and keep hold of the fact that you can never go home again, a brief stroll down Memory Lane can be not only fun, but healthy.

A Christmas Story: The Musical is so drenched in nostalgia, it’s hard to tell where an adaptation starts and the original story begins: it’s a 2012 musical based on the now-ubiquitous 1983 film, itself based on Jean Shepherd’s 1966 roman à clef novel, which loosely recounted his small-town America memories from the 1940s. The late Shepherd was a raconteur first and foremost, which is why the film wisely chose him to be its narrator. But if SF Playhouse’s new production is any indication, Shepherd’s tale has finally gone from “beloved childhood memory” to “Put a cork in it, Grandpa!” territory.

It’s Christmas 1944 and there’s only one thing nine-year-old Ralphie Parker wants to find under the tree: a Red Ryder BB gun. Through his thick, Coke-bottle glasses, the young lad regularly fantasizes about the potential adventures that await him with his new (mostly) non-lethal firearm. Unfortunately for him, the adult world isn’t as sympathetic to his adolescent desire, as an endless stream of grown-ups constantly warn him that he’ll shoot his eye out.

But Ralphie is nothing if not tenacious. So when he’s not dealing with immature friends, angry neighbors’ dogs, and a yellow-eyed bully named Scott Farkus, Ralphie waits patiently for December 25th to roll around, knowing that one day this will be a Christmas story to remember.

Watching this show represented something a mini-milestone for me: it marked nearly one full year since I began attending Bay Area theatre performances in an official capacity. Incidentally, the first show I saw in this capacity was an SF Playhouse production of a Christmas-based musical directed by Susi Damilano (She Loves Me). As it happens, this production shares many of the same problems as that one. It isn’t the songs (which are good) nor really the book (at least, not entirely – the book is just a shameless word-for-word rehash of the screenplay), but rather directorial choices.

I’ve only recently discovered that Damilano is one of SF Playhouse’s founders. Years before I knew that, I just thought of her as a really good actor, one nearly impossible to ignore when on stage. Point in fact, she’s probably the Playhouse’s most reliably great actor who isn’t named Lauren English. Unfortunately, she has a habit of constantly misfiring as a director.

What’s worse, it’s always for the same reason: pacing – she adds “air” when other directors would take it out. I haven’t seen her dramas, so she might be better with those, but her sense of timing (or lack thereof) doesn’t work with the musicals and comedies she chooses. Earlier this year, she took Michael Frayn’s rapid-fire farce Noises Off! and slowed it down to an interminable pace. So too does she needlessly drag out all of Christmas Story’s dialogue scenes, robbing them of any spark and making it seem as if we’re just watching the film in slo-mo. And just as Noises Off!’s pacing problems were all the more apparent in scenes with the correct pace (Act 2 was perfect), so too does A Christmas Story jump back to life placed into the hands of its choreographers and music directors. The music numbers fly where the rest of the show crawls.

And yet, Damilano’s strength as a director is her ability to coax genuinely good performances from her cast. Young Jonah Broscow brings a lot of heart to Ralphie. Though not the strongest singer (he can carry a tune), the cracks in his voice actually work, considering Ralphie’s age. Christopher Reber is jovial enough as Jean Shepherd, but the character’s on-stage presence is a flaw in Joseph Robinette’s book. Whereas a show like Fun Home or Bridgette Portman’s Ageless appropriately integrate their stories’ narrators, the physical presence of Shepherd sticks out like a sore thumb. In fact, he often just stands on one side of the stage doing… nothing. Nothing at all.

The real highlights of the show are Katrina McGraw as teacher Miss Shields and Alex Hsu, who helped choreograph the show and plays various characters (including the Chinese restaurant owner, whose scene the playwrights wisely toned down from the film’s blatant racism). And yes, the younger members of the cast are able to be adorable without being grating.

And it wouldn’t be an SF Playhouse show with top-notch work in lighting (Thomas Munn), costuming (Abra Berman), sound (Theodore Hulsker), and scenic design (Jacquelyn Scott’s rotating stage returns). This being a musical, further shout-outs go to Dave Dobrusky’s direction, Kimberley Richard’s choreography, and all the members of the off-stage band.

I’m usually out seeing new movies on Christmas day, so I tend to miss the annual “24 Hours of A Christmas Story” marathon. Still, I have no ill will towards the film (save for the aforementioned racist Chinese restaurant scene), nor towards those who enjoy it. A Christmas Story: The Musical is a repetitive stage play with a catch through-song musical just dying to burst out. Though the performances range from “decent” to “winning” across the board, this production is weighed down by languid pacing that blatantly undercuts any energy that could be found.

When you take a beloved children’s story, put it on in a theatre full of kids, only them to be bored out of their minds by its tedium, that’s when you know you’ve done something wrong.

GRADE:                D+

A Christmas Story: The Musical is scheduled to run until the 13th of January at the Walter Casper Teufel Jr. Auditorium in San Francisco’s Kensington Park Hotel.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Categories: Theatre

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