TBS has famously aired 24-hour marathons of the 1983 cult holiday classic A Christmas Story every Christmas Eve for the last two decades. Who would have thought that FOX’s Sunday night airing of A Christmas Story Live! would’ve seemed even more interminable.
In many ways, the impressive undertaking—a live staging of the 2012 Broadway musical adaptation of the film—was the perfect, or at least fitting, holiday special.
The idea of it, rooted in rose-colored nostalgia, is a lot more fun than the thing itself. In the throes of it all, it seems never-ending and grating. But in the end, when you think about the work that was involved in pulling it off and the heart and love pulsing beneath it, you still end up kind of touched, admit that you had a great time, and look forward to doing it all again next year.
The story driving A Christmas Story is slight. So slight that most people fall in two camps: obsessives, or those who don’t understand the fuss at all.
All young Ralphie Parker wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder carbine action BB gun 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock. He spends every waking moment either dropping hints about it to his parents, his teacher, and anyone who will listen or daydreaming about what he will do with it once he gets it.
(We’ll leave the optics about creating a wholesome family musical in which the entire narrative revolves around a child wanting a gun out of it. Thankfully, A Christmas Story has always been a cautionary tale: You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.)
The film is remembered less for any sort of season-defining morals or inspiration, a la It’s a Wonderful Life or The Grinch, and more for its campy one-liners and bizarro gags: the leg lamp, “oh fudge,” the Bumpus hounds, the pink bunny suit, and, of course, the aforementioned refrain: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
The joy of musical-theater adaptations like this is seeing how iconic moments like those are adapted for a broader razzle-dazzle format. They all reappear in a range of clever ways in A Christmas Story Live!...just spread out over the course of a strained full-length musical. (There’s a reason the original film’s running time is a brisk 93 minutes.)
FOX’s live staging of the musical, which scored a slew of Tony nominations when it premiered five years ago, began seemingly in the days of yore, with a bizarre opening number performed with autotuned gumption by pop star Bebe Rexha against a blinding all-white background, like some sort of deranged holiday Gap commercial.
It was an odd start—especially considering once the camera turned onto the meticulously decorated, cavernous snowglobe of a soundstage to kick off the actual musical, the sheer scale and detail of it all was enough to take your breath away.
Practically an entire suburb was erected on the Warner Brothers backlot, replete with a town square, school, department store, neighborhood street, and at least two entire houses. Orchestrating the complicated, lively, truly wondrous live direction and camera choreography through all of it is a holiday miracle on a par with Santa Claus visiting all those houses in one night.
Matthew Broderick plays the story’s narrator, an older Ralphie recalling the one magical Christmas decades before when his yearning for a BB gun ended up bringing his family closer together. (Like we said: slight story!) The Tony-winner’s wry delivery, always somewhere on a spectrum from understated to unenthused, serves the story well, tempering the erstwhile loudness of the musical’s staging. One thing we will never understand: Family entertainment’s constant overestimation of its audience’s appetite for hearing children screaming obnoxiously.
Relative newcomer Andy Walken is the pint-sized kid with the herculean task of carrying an entire three-hour FOX musical on his shoulders. A dead ringer for the original Ralphie, he hits every famous note of the film, if not necessarily every high note of the score. Surrounding Walken, however, was an ensemble of singing-and-dancing kids with more professionalism and energy in one eight-count than radiates off most episodes of any given network sitcom.
Maya Rudolph plays Ralphie’s harried mother against type, with a straightforward warmth that’s a refreshing change of pace from her signature zany characters. Jane Krakowski and Ana Gasteyer each are given a turn at stealing the spotlight with barn-burning musical numbers, while Fred Armisen, Ken Jeong, and David Alan Grier each make the most of comedic cameos. (The latter, playing a black Santa, hopefully not shocking Megyn Kelly too much in the process.)
But it’s TV journeyman Chris Diamantopoulos as Ralphie’s father who runs away with the show. He pays pitch-perfect homage to Darren McGavin’s endearingly cantankerous performance, but riffs unexpectedly when Old Man Parker dusts off his dancing shoes for two of the show’s best numbers—nailing a certain kind of vaudevillian harrumphing needed to pull off the role. His doing a soft shoe with an ensemble of dancing lamp shades is the best argument that this entire endeavor was worthwhile.
If only every number lived up the high mark of his fittingly titled “A Major Award.”
A Christmas Story is a cute, mildly amusing tale that, it turns out, becomes extremely grating once you add music. At least, once you add this music.
There’s a soft glow to the film, but a blinding, high-wattage brightness to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score that seems as incongruous to the spirit of the story as a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg shining through a window is to an otherwise Rockwellian street.
The latent grin of the music is relentless to the point of off-putting, especially considering that nothing from the score sticks in your head long enough to keep you humming once the curtain falls—or, in this case, when the credits roll.
Worse, while the cardinal rule of musical theater is that the songs should only exist to push the narrative forward, each progressive number seems to stall the energy and halt the momentum right in its tracks—especially as the fantasy sequences and dream ballets keep piling up (yes, multiple, and several cowboy-themed). A Christmas Story, the musical: for everyone who watches the Oklahoma! dream ballet and wishes it was longer, with kids.
If your patience with the pace of a musical is tested to the point that even Jane Krakwoski doing a tap number in a bedazzled body stocking has you checking your watch, there’s a problem.
Would we be more forgiving of these things if we had not, by this point, become so accustomed to the polish of these almost unfathomably tricky live musical productions? After starting off on rough footing with Sound of Music and Peter Pan, the mounting of these has become tantamount to some sort of TV wizardry, especially FOX’s staging of Grease Live! last year.
If we’re no longer in awe of the technical feat in putting these on, maybe we’re more critical of the meat of it all. And therefore, without affection for the material, which many people don’t have when it comes to A Christmas Story—and even fewer people have for the music of the Christmas Story musical—these productions become a tougher sell.
And yet, having said all that, by the time the final number is in its last seconds and the snow is falling around Broderick’s character, followed by the cast’s enthusiastic bows, we still found ourselves misty-eyed. The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes, Scrooge showed up with gifts for the Cratchits, and so, too, did we in the end find ourselves charmed by the intention and joy behind this flawed production.
No eyes were shot out. But at least two were moved by the holiday spirit radiating from A Christmas Story Live!