If you noticed, I haven’t been writing theatre reviews of late. My last full review was of Ghosts at the Odyssey Theatre, back in October 2022; there was an explanation why in a post from May 2023. This may be changing — watch for a post before the end of the year. But last night we saw A Christmas Story at the Ahmanson Theatre, and it is just crying out in my head for some … observations. This won’t be a full writeup.
So what did I think of A Christmas Story (book by Joseph Robinette, Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, based on the motion picture of the same name)? Suffice it to say that I saw this simply because it was part of the Ahmanson season, and once was enough for me. The performances were good, and there were a number of laugh out loud moments, but ultimately it wasn’t timeless. Perhaps this is because I’m not Christian and the nostalgic Christmas has no special place in my heart. But I think there are a number of deeper problems with the show as a whole that I wish to opine about.
- As noted, I’m not a Christmas person, and generally not a Christmas musical person. My favorite is still A Mulholland Christmas Carol, which I saw back in December 2012. More recently, I really enjoyed the version of A Christmas Carol that the Ahmanson did back in December 2021 with Bradley Whitford. But most Christmas musicals I can take or leave, and most fall into the leave category. White Christmas and Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (soon at Broadway in Hollywood) — I’m looking at you. There are various reasons for this indifference, but it generally falls down to the fact that nostalgia falls flat with me. This harkening back to snow, and hearth, and gifts, and the magic of Christmas pass evokes little. It seems to miss the point of the holiday.
- There is one modern Christmas musical I do like: Elf, which I last saw at the Canyon Theatre Guild in December 2019, and is currently running there through Dec 23 2023. Elf is filled with joy and exuberance; and it has memorable and hummable songs that you can enjoy hearing out of the context of the story. It is a movie that called out for musicalization; there were elements of the story where you could easily see the characters bursting out into song. I contrast that with A Christmas Story, where you ask yourself: Why? The movie itself was fine as a nostalgia piece, but the scenes and incidents didn’t cry out “make me a musical”. In many ways, the Christmas Story musical was more a series of vignettes than a significant story with a through line, and characters that grew and changed over the story. I’ll gladly see Elf again; for A Christmas Story, once was enough.
- Another problem with A Christmas Story: The Musical is its setting. The audience for which 1940s Indiana has any meaning is rapidly dying away. Literally. The adults from the 1940s are dead; the kids from the 1940s will be within the next 5-10 years. The time and places, and the memories from this story will be increasingly foreign to Gen X, Y, and Z. What are department stores? I thought Santas were in shopping malls, and toys were at Walmart? What are these mail-in contests? There is just increasingly little that will invoke memories. That will limit the stage life of this musical, which will be propped up by endless showings of the movie. Other Christmas stories of this time period: It’s a Wonderful Life or White Christmas, have more staying power because they don’t play on nostalgia (and let’s not mention Here’s Love, which is just a musicalized Miracle on 34th Street).
- Additionally, there is the issue of the object at the center of A Christmas Story: The Musical: A gun, specifically a Red Ryder BB Gun. which you can still get today. Only in America would you have a musical celebrating a gun; perhaps that makes this musical play better in those parts of America that yearn for a return to 1950s America, 1950s values, and a culture where guns are a part of life. Yes, we know phrases like that are dog whistles today, and I’m sure those notions weren’t in the mind of Jean Shepard when he wrote the original short stories, or in the minds of the movie makers. Yet themes get perverted by our times — and I feel this theme won’t resonate long term with the youth of today.
- Where does the notion of bribing children for being good all year come from? Was it added to Christmas by the parent’s lobby? It’s certainly not in Christian theology as I understand it, where the reward for being good is an eternity in Heaven with Jesus, not Tinker-Toys. Is this notion the Protestant equivalent of Yom Kippur, given that they did away with Catholic Confession? These are the thoughts that go through my head during a Christmas musical.
- The musical captures all the major stories and points of the movie: all those scenes you remember. But with the musical, you ask yourself: Why was this included? What do these scenes due to advance the story or grow the characters? Story-wise, you could drop the flagpole scene, or all the hullaballoo about “A Major Award”, and the story would progress equally well. Again, this shows why this was not a movie that called out to be a musical; or if it was to become one, it needed radical rethinking to build it into a proper musical book of its own. Buddy the Elf had a journey. DId Ralphie?
- This is not to say the show was bad. There were some laugh out loud moments — in particular, the dogs (Reba and Jethro) with the turkey. The tap numbers were spectacular (and special kudos to Addalie Burns for the tap specialty. I enjoyed the Christmas dinner scene. The performances were strong, and it looks like the show (which is a tour) cast locally (although the “tour” seemingly had only one stop, and appears to be a remounting of the 2021 tour for Los Angeles). I noticed quite a few local cast, with draws from past 5-Star Theatrical, MTW, McCoy Rigby, Actors Co-Op, and such productions. But it was ultimately “donuts for dinner” (a phrase from [Title of Show], referring to something that seems like a good idea at the time, but is filled with sugar and in the end leaves you hungry).
Should you go see A Christmas Story: The Musical? I think it depends on your views on Christmas, and Christmas nostalgia for Christmas in 1940s white-break America — the land of Hallmark and Great American TV Movies. Once was enough for me.
Don’t be surprised if I have thoughts next week, when we see MJ – The Musical. Going in: I can easily see why one would want to build a jukebox musical out of the MIchael Jackson catalog. But given Jackson’s personal history, I find the notion of the biographical approach (and one that really only presents the good) to be puzzling. He’s gone, and the funds support his kids, and the song rights holders (i.e., Sony, if I recall correctly), so it is less cringe-worthy than buying a new Bill Cosby album, but still… Next week, we shall see.
You can also expect a post before the end of the year regarding theatre reviews going forward. Yes, I’ve been attending theatre through 2022 and 2023 — just not writing about it. The old-style reviews took just too much work (even this one took a couple of hours). I’m debating picking up the review mantle again, but they won’t be as detailed. At least that’s the intent, but who knows with the way I write.