Bob Clark’s 1983 film based on Jean Shepherd’s novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” has become a precious Christmas tradition not just for my family, but also countless others. The Broadway musical received three Tony nominations in 2013 (including Best Musical) and when the touring production was announced as part of the Dallas Summer Musicals 75th season lineup, it was certain to become one of its most popular.
What a joy to watch the pre-show sea of smiling ticketholders jostling to have their picture taken with a glass case display in the theatre lobby. The featured attraction was one of three original “leg lamps” used in the movie … direct from the private collection of Dallas Summer Musicals President and Managing Director Michael Jenkins. This set the mood for a most delightful presentation of a familiar story presented in a manner most of us had not previously experienced.
A film-to-stage adaptation is made more challenging when transitioned into a musical format. The music and lyrics were written for Broadway by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and the songs bring a nice, upbeat touch without disturbing the flow of the story. Chris Carsten plays the Jean Shepherd role, and instead of an unseen movie narrator, he is an active stage participant intertwined through many scenes. With a voice more reminiscent of Brian Doyle Murray than Jean Shepherd, it takes awhile for us to adjust, but Carsten’s animated descriptions are a real asset to the production.
Of course we all know what really matters … Ralphie Parker and the outrageous situations he and his family find themselves. For this show, Ralphie was played by Evan Gray (rotating shows with Coulten Maurer), and his slightly clumsy movements were effective for the comedy moments, and his singing voice was sufficient and consistent throughout the show. Christopher Swan as The Old Man sounded remarkably similar to Darren McGavin at times, while Cal Alexander was spot on as little Randy, especially when screaming “I can’t get up!” in a very popular scene. Susannah Jones was a real standout as The Mother, and her beautiful and soothing singing voice perfectly complemented the sweet demeanor necessary for the role.
The musical numbers benefited from a very talented group of youngsters, and the fact that the songs helped push along the story. The “A Major Award” song and dance sequence seemed to last a couple minutes longer than necessary, and that was probably because it was missing kids through most of it. Miss Shields (played wonderfully by Avital Asuleen) had an explosive and slightly seductive dance that was a bit uncomfortable to watch given the close proximity of the kids, but it was quickly forgiven as the “On Santa’s Lap” portion was colorful and lively and hilarious.
Somehow, most of the iconic moments were captured on stage: the pink bunny pj’s, the triple dog dare on the playground, Higbee’s display window, the furnace battle, Scut Farkus, and of course the leg lamp/major award. The Chinese restaurant scene is a bit awkward these days and probably should be re-written to avoid the racist tone, but we were treated to live bloodhounds romping across the stage as the Bumpus pups, and the presence of the Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200 shot Range Model with a compass in the stock kept Ralphie’s dream alive.
Matt Lenz takes over the direction from Broadway’s John Rando, and Jordan Sparks handles Warren Carlyle’s crisp choreography. The orchestra performed well throughout, and a couple of the kids were exceptional in their tap solos. At the core of the story, and what allows so many to connect, is the nostalgia associated with simpler times and life as a kid combined with the heartfelt emotions that go with being a parent. It seems we all dream of a major award, but what we really want is for our family to be happy … and that’s true whether on a movie screen or through singing on a theatrical stage. HO-HO-HO!!