“A Christmas Story: Live” – The Good, The Bad and the Ehh

Noah Golden

The latest live televised musical “A Christmas Story,” brings Pasek & Paul’s 2012 Broadway adaptation of the nostalgic Christmas film to the screen. But does “A Christmas Story” fulfill my Christmas wishes? Or is it a big lump of coal? Here’s my take.

Good:

The cast here is uniformly fantastic, even when given lackluster material or dizzying camera angles (more on that later). It’s no surprise that “SNL” vets Maya Rudolph and Ana Gaseyer (as Mother Parker and her spirited Jewish neighbor) bring great comedic energy to the show and are both terrific musical performers to boot. I could have watched Gaseyer sing about Hanukkah all night. Broadway vets Chris Diamantopoulos and Jane Krakowski hit all the rights notes as Old Man Parker and Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields as well. While it’s a lot of pressure to put on an 11-year-old actor with very little on-camera experience, newcomer Andy Walken makes a perfectly likable and capable Ralphie. Also, a shout-out is needed for director Scott Ellis and his casting team for creating a (sadly anachronistically) multiculturally diverse Indiana.

One of my big gripes with the past telecasts is the networks’ decision to stage shows that have been seen and filmed many times before. “Hairspray,” for instance, was already two movies and a high school staple before the NBC broadcast. To me, the biggest reason for doing these live broadcasts is bringing professional musical theater to people without access to NYC and enough dough to snag a Broadway ticket. Given that, why not showcase plays and performers the American public hasn’t already seen before? So, I appreciate that Marc Platt and his producers are giving the audience a new piece of musical theater written by a hot pair of composers. While I wish “A Christmas Story” was a stronger piece of theater, to begin with, I hope this will lead to more contemporary work being televised rather than dusting off nostalgic old chestnuts.

Bad:

There were some impressive things in “A Christmas Story” from the detailed, huge soundstages to some killer choreography by Zach Woodlee. But instead of focusing on the dancing or the talented people executing it, you couldn’t help but be distracted by the dizzying, swirling camera blocking. In an attempt to make the show seem less “stagey,” tech director Alex Rudzinski went overboard with steady-cam work and busy shot composure, at least during the production’s first half. “A Christmas Story” shouldn’t feel like an over-caffeinated, prepubescent “Birdman.” What’s wrong with letting a stage musical look like a stage musical?

Most plays are crafted in two acts, but this three-hour television broadcast contains over a dozen blocks, each surrounded by a maddeningly long set of commercials. I get the need to sell airtime, but these breaks just kill any momentum and sense of continuity. Instead of settling into the world of “A Christmas Story,” we’re ultimately given a series of interconnected scenes and songs that never gel into one fully coherent or interesting story. That’s not aided by the fact that this adaptation is more interested in tangential flights of whimsy than heartfelt storytelling. I’d much rather have had a few more scenes getting to know the family around the dinner table than a musical sequence where Ralphie becomes a cowboy. These kinds of fantasy elements might work on stage, but feel out of place and distracting here. It says something that my two favorite numbers – the aforementioned Hanukkah song and Miss Shields’ old-Hollywood tap number “You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!”)  – have absolutely no bearing on the plot.

Ehhhh:

Given that I am a fan of Tony-winners Pasek & Paul and love the idea of their work on such a national stage, it pains me to say that their score for “A Christmas Story” is just so-so. A few good songs shine through (“It All Comes Down To Christmas” is toe-tapping fun) but most of this pastiche score is forgettable and dull. Some of it, like the “Matilda” wannabe “When You're A Wimp,” is downright derivative. It’s not bad music – and if I were to see a young family member in a community theater production of this stage-show, it’d be a perfectly pleasing bit of fluff – but it’s a bit of a letdown from the folks who wrote “Waving Through A Window.”

I didn’t grow up with “A Christmas Story,” so there are no nostalgia goggles when it comes to the source material. If the original movie was a childhood favorite maybe this musical would ring with more authenticity. But it seems pretty dated and bland to me. Is the quest for a BB gun interesting for the iPhone generation? Is the yearning for the simplicity of Roosevelt-era yesteryear relatable in 2017? Is bullying and a kid being punished by eating soap something we can laugh at? What about a preteen lusting over a toy gun? Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but I do wonder what place this story holds in today’s climate and interest level.

What did you think of “A Christmas Story: Live?”