Paramount hits the mark with hugely entertaining 'Christmas Story'

  • Christmas morning isn't exactly what Ralphie (Michael Harp, in bunny suit) expected in "A Christmas Story -- The Musical," adapted from humorist Jean Shepherd's memoirs and Bob Clark's 1983 film. Theo Moss, left, plays younger brother Randy, Danni Smith plays the mother and Michael Accardo plays the Old Man in Paramount Theatre's revival directed by Nick Bowling.

    Christmas morning isn't exactly what Ralphie (Michael Harp, in bunny suit) expected in "A Christmas Story -- The Musical," adapted from humorist Jean Shepherd's memoirs and Bob Clark's 1983 film. Theo Moss, left, plays younger brother Randy, Danni Smith plays the mother and Michael Accardo plays the Old Man in Paramount Theatre's revival directed by Nick Bowling. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • Ralphie (Michael Harp, atop desk) imagines how he'll save the day with a Red Ryder BB gun in the heartwarming "A Christmas Story -- The Musical," running through Jan. 3 at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

    Ralphie (Michael Harp, atop desk) imagines how he'll save the day with a Red Ryder BB gun in the heartwarming "A Christmas Story -- The Musical," running through Jan. 3 at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • At long last, The Old Man (Michael Accardo), left, reaps the benefit of his countless contest submissions when he receives his major award in "A Christmas Story -- The Musical." Paramount Theatre's sparkling revival co-stars Danni Smith as Mother, Michael Harp, second from right, as Ralphie and Theo Moss as Randy.

    At long last, The Old Man (Michael Accardo), left, reaps the benefit of his countless contest submissions when he receives his major award in "A Christmas Story -- The Musical." Paramount Theatre's sparkling revival co-stars Danni Smith as Mother, Michael Harp, second from right, as Ralphie and Theo Moss as Randy. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • Michael Harp's Ralphie receives the gift he's been dreaming of -- a Red Ryder BB gun -- in "A Christmas Story -- The Musical" running through Jan. 3 at Aurora's Paramount Theatre. Theo Moss, left, plays Randy, Danni Smith plays the mother and Michael Accardo plays the Old Man in director Nick Bowling's production.

    Michael Harp's Ralphie receives the gift he's been dreaming of -- a Red Ryder BB gun -- in "A Christmas Story -- The Musical" running through Jan. 3 at Aurora's Paramount Theatre. Theo Moss, left, plays Randy, Danni Smith plays the mother and Michael Accardo plays the Old Man in director Nick Bowling's production. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

 
 
Updated 12/1/2015 3:41 PM

What makes a musical a classic? A story that resonates, for starters. Good music, canny lyrics and interesting characters are also essential.

"A Christmas Story -- The Musical" -- in a superb revival at Aurora's Paramount Theatre -- has that. Yet for a musical to become a classic, it has to withstand the test of time. But how much time? Ten years? 50? 100?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In the case of "A Christmas Story," it has taken fewer than six years -- from its 2009 Kansas premiere to the retooled version that made its way from Seattle (2010) to Chicago (2011) to Broadway (2012) -- for the show to secure its place in the American musical canon.

The exuberant response from the Paramount audience Sunday night confirms it's there to stay.

Based on the 1983 film inspired by humorist and radio personality Jean Shepherd's short-story collection "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash," "A Christmas Story" is a heartwarming, hugely entertaining snapshot of middle American family life circa 1940. A combination memory play and coming-of-age tale, the show boasts a bouncy, swing era-infused score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a gently humorous book by Joseph Robinette that is faithful to the screenplay by Shepherd, director Bob Clark and Leigh Brown.

But while steeped in nostalgia, "A Christmas Story" avoids sentimentality. That's not to say it isn't sentimental. It is. But it's a tempered sentiment -- a touch of sour with the sweet -- that makes the show resonate. Director Nick Bowling, in his Paramount debut, strikes the perfect balance. He also introduces some canny innovations, including dispensing quickly the insensitive racial stereotype that mars the show's final scene.

The result is a fast-moving, well-acted, lush-sounding production (kudos to music director/conductor Tom Vendagreddo and his 15-piece orchestra) that delights in just about every way.

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Framed as a radio broadcast, the story is masterfully narrated by the terrific Phillip Earl Johnson. He brings a folksy authenticity to the amiable author Jean Shepherd, who serves as our guide on this trip down memory lane.

Set during that insular, Rockwellian era between the waning days of the Great Depression and the United States' entry into World War II, the action unfolds in the weeks leading up to Christmas in the northwest Indiana home of young Ralphie Parker (Michael Harp, an engaging, energetic triple-threat). Ralphie desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. When he's not dropping hints to his parents, Ralphie spends his time fantasizing about the adventures he'll have as imagined in the exuberant, western-inspired "Ralphie to the Rescue."

The Old Man (Michael Accardo, expertly balancing comic bluster and subtle affection), an unsung EveryDad, tinkers with the furnace and enters crossword puzzle contests. His efforts culminate in "A Major Award." This inspired production number, made memorable by a peppery female chorus and Sally Dolembo's cleverly illuminated costumes, was so comically delightful, so cleverly conceived I couldn't stop smiling. And I wasn't alone.

Nurturing the family falls to Mother (Chicago storefront veteran Danni Smith in another seamless, vocally rich performance). She expresses her devotion in the lovely ballad "What a Mother Does," and her recognition that their time together is fleeting in its second act counterpart "Just Like That."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Theo Moss plays Ralphie's whiny younger brother Randy. Matthew Uzarraga and Blake Barnickel play best pals Schwartz and Flick, the latter being the unfortunate lad who accepts a triple-dog dare and winds up with his tongue stuck to a strategically placed flagpole in one of the show's most riotous numbers.

Other highlights include "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out," a taptastic number featuring a zealous Ericka Mac as a demure teacher turned diva, and the wry, satirical "Up on Santa's Lap," featuring Mark David Kaplan, priceless as a cranky department store Santa surrounded by disgruntled elves.

The cast -- surely among the hardest working ensembles currently on stage -- is first-rate, especially the young performers. Also earning kudos are Jeffrey D. Kmiec's sets, particularly the Parkers' cramped but cozy two-story house and Ralphie's retro classroom.

The scene where the Bumpus hounds devour the turkey feels like an afterthought, but that's a minor point in Paramount's major revival of this heartwarming tale.

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