The 5th Avenue Theatre’s latest Christmas production is chock-full of humor and heart
By Reuven Pinnata
Originally published in the December 2014 issue.
There are musicals which overwhelm us with the scope of their epic vision, and there are musicals which speak to us as the consummate voice of an era—this musical just happens to be neither. A Christmas Story at first seems unassuming in its ambition; it reads like a Norman Rockwell painting—almost too simplistic albeit warm and unabashedly cheery. There is almost nothing special about its story; it is just a slice of cake from the American suburbs in the 50’s. Yet there is something irresistibly charming and nostalgic about it, as if it were a past all of us could have shared, and this is why it’s almost impossible not to love this musical. Beneath the mundane and the specific, A Christmas Story manages to locate the exact heartstring which resonates in all of us.
The plot itself is simple: Christmas is approaching, and our protagonist Ralphie longs after the perfect Christmas present: a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun, complete with a compass and “this thing that tells time.” However, this simple wish is tied with other aspects of the story. His dad, referred to as The Old Man, is participating in a crossword competition, and he believes that winning it will finally earn the profound respect he’s always deserved. He ends up winning the competition, the reward being a fishnet stockinged leg lamp, which albeit silly, he ends up putting on a pedestal anyway. Ralphie’s mother, on the other hand, is trying to hold the household together, caring for Ralphie, his little brother Randy, and her insecure husband. Meanwhile, besides trying to get what he wants, Ralphie also needs to deal with the usual stuff any 9-year-old has to: triple-dog-daring friends, overly strict teachers, and demonic bullies.
There’s a simple reason why this musical works and it’s the same reason why any other piece of theatre works: it makes the audience believe in its emotions. The great American conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein says that what makes opera grand is that it magnifies emotions so immensely that it’s impossible to miss them—this is what A Christmas Story delivers. You can’t not feel the emotions the characters feel; when Ralphie sings that he really wants that BB gun, you believe him. In fact, the story involves elaborate sequences of some of the characters’ imagination, which have to be really believable to work. For instance, in one of them, Ralphie imagines himself to be a cowboy, saving everyone left and right with his BB gun. You are just invited to go along with Ralphie’s exhilaration—and again, you believe him.
Another forte of this musical is its humor. Of course, it depends largely on its execution, but throughout this production, the humor was consistently sustained. It was always fresh and surprising, never tasteless or forced. It seemed like all of the performers were having fun doing it and it caught on in the audience—laughter was as constant an accompaniment as the musical score. This being a comedy, there are problems which, instead of being resolved reasonably, are just swept under the rug of rambunctious humor. For instance, Ralphie’s father seriously has problems; anyone with that level of self-esteem is clearly neurotic. However, instead of being a consequential element of the story, it becomes a capital for many of the musical’s jokes. This may be seen as a defect, but I am willing to take it for granted: comedy follows its own logic. In some cases, however, the musical also makes fun of itself. The depiction of Santa and his elves as overworked and underpaid mall staff whose smiles are barely holding back their raging frustration is both hilarious and spot-on.
Of course, to pull off any good musical, especially one which depends more on execution rather than on content, you need a good cast, and in this respect, The 5th Avenue has managed to assemble a stellar one. The role of Ralphie snugly fit Mark-Jeffrey James Weber’s extremely capable hands; his understanding of it was exceptionally mature. His portrayal was so contagious and inviting that it was so easy to identify with his character, and in vocal matters, his voice confidently answered to their demands. Dane Stokinger played the role of the Old Man with the right mixture of fatherly gruffness and personal neurosis; it might read like a caricature but it was a suave, tasteful one. Jessica Skerritt’s performance as the Mother, simply put, reminded me of my mom—it’s that good. Her two solos, in which she sang about the daily cares of being a mother and in which she comforted Ralphie after an intense fight with the bullies, were moving in the most motherly way. (It’s worth mentioning that Stokinger and Skerritt are married in real life.)
Brandon Oke as Randy, on the other hand, could have just stood there and everyone in the room would still adore him. He knew how to play his cuteness cards—and all of them were aces. This, however, was not to discredit his acting or singing, both of which were excellent. It is also worth mentioning that the majority of the cast were kids, and all of them greatly contributed to the overall feeling of the performance with an almost uncannily mature attunement to its humor. The rest of the ensemble provided a solid back-up, and the orchestra was in its top form.
A word of caution: A Christmas Story might not appeal to people who think that art has to be “serious” or that it has to “have something to say.” But even then, I still encourage them to see it and think if it doesn’t have something to say. In order to say something, a work of art doesn’t always have to have something new to say; sometimes it can just be a simple reminder of something old that all of us have always known. And I’m not suggesting that this treasured “something” is the suburban values of the 50’s or the American tradition of Christmas. It is the capacity to discover the heart and the humor even in the simplest, smallest things.
[A Christmas Story runs until December 30, 2014. Students showing their student IDs can buy day-of-show tickets at the box office for $20.]