by Byron Woods
Apparently there's some confusion about whose production of A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL is currently running in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium.
It's understandable enough. After all, this time last year, North Carolina Theatre and Hot Summer Nights collaborated with long-time Raleigh presenter Broadway Series South on a joint venture—a locally produced stage adaptation of Jean Shepherd's classic holiday tale, A Christmas Story. That gentle saga of triple dog dares, a table lamp resembling a leg in fishnet stockings on a stiletto heel—and, of course, a genuine Red Ryder carbine action BB gun—enchanted critics and audiences so much that a return engagement was virtually guaranteed.
A year has passed and, yes, the three companies have gotten together again—this time, to bring us the Shepherd yarn in a musical form.
But the production on stage this week in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium is actually a professional touring version of the show, one created by New York's Alchemy Production Group. The names of N.C. Theatre and Hot Summer Nights prominently appear on the playbill, publicity and the companies' websites ("Our next production," says NCTheatre.org—while the show’s cast page remains blank, and its gallery features photos from a 2009 production in Kansas City, with actors not appearing in this version).
In reality, though, aside from a handful of local musicians hired to round out the orchestra pit, no directors, designers or artists affiliated with either N.C. Theatre or Hot Summer Nights are connected with the show. They've just brought it here, and put their brands on it.
And since N.C. Theatre will shortly do this twice again, in January and February, when they co-host—and co-claim—professional touring productions of Green Day's American Idiot and Les Miserables, two significant questions are raised that aren’t going to go away when A Christmas Story's final curtain falls on Sunday.
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When one of the region’s biggest theater companies, long known for staging its own original revivals of the classics of musical theatre, begins hosting touring shows under its own name, good things can take place. The change can expose regional audiences to works we wouldn't otherwise see, and provide the company with additional, needed revenue streams.
N.C. Theatre’s 2011—12 season is the largest in the company’s 27-year history. The six productions bearing its brand surpass the four shows the company usually presents each year.
But in subcontracting the first full half of this season to outside productions, that increase actually masks the fact that, for only the second time in 15 years, the company itself is producing three shows this year instead of its usual four.
Question No. 1: Did the decision to present touring productions in any way influence the company to reduce its regular number of productions this year?
This is a particular concern given N.C. Theatre’s long-term emphasis on education. Over the years, its productions have nurtured and given deserving local talent a venue, professional-level stage experience, and a springboard to professional careers. Since 1984, a number of artists who got their start with the company have ended up on Broadway—a fact regularly stressed in the theater’s prestigious conservatory program.
That function effectively ceases when touring companies present shows under the N.C. Theatre banner—but without giving any local student or professional artists the opportunity to work on them.
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The act of branding outside productions as N.C. Theatre’s can also mislead theatergoers into thinking they’re seeing the company’s own original, creative work when they’re not. To protect the consumer, everybody has to know a substitution is being made.
But that wasn't the case on opening night at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. For after a company spokesperson assured me that most people were aware of the difference, I looked at the theater’s website, read the show’s publicity—and decided to test the hypothesis for myself.
Mingling with the crowd, I selected 10 people at random, identified myself as a reporter, and asked them two questions: “Are there any local actors in tonight’s production? And does it matter to you if there are?”
Seven patrons said they didn’t know. One confidently—if inaccurately—advised me there were local actors in the show. Which left two of the ten who knew it wasn’t a local production—if, that is, we give the benefit of the doubt to the man who said “Probably not.”
So it seems we have a problem here. Question number two: Do regional theaters really want a marketplace where patrons have to ask, each time they’re buying tickets, "Yeah, but it is actually your show?"
If not, these sponsoring—as opposed to producing—groups need to further clarify the true identity of the visiting productions they host under their name. If they don't, patrons, journalists—and critics—will have no choice but to do it instead.
Now, let’s talk about the show.
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Joseph Robinette’s notable adaptation and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s lively songs don’t drown us in an eggy punchbowl of Yuletide platitudes. (That, we leave to a certain wiseguy British miser who rejoins us shortly. Welcome back.) Songs like “Counting Down to Christmas” recapture the drama, suspense and angst of Christmastimes past, and their unique place among the memories of childhood. That same gentle grittiness gave Shepherd’s rust-belt memoirs their verity to start with. It’s still present here.
After framing the tale as a story Shepherd once told to a radio audience, we submerge into the world where central character Ralphie negotiates recalcitrant parents, neighborhood bullies (in the woeful—and workmanlike—anthem “When You’re a Wimp”), and capricious teachers in his fretful quest for the best Christmas present of all time.
John Rando’s brisk stage direction propels him and us through a holiday gauntlet. Warren Carlyle’s choreography leavens tap routines with loonier dance moves at Higbee’s Department Store. Later, the Old Man’s “major award” (that leg lamp, mentioned above) inspires an unlikely full-stage ballroom tribute, before a finale capturing what the Rockettes kick line would have looked like—if each dancer only had an extra leg.
When the lamp meets its untimely demise, Rando stages the husband and wife recriminations in what seems a comic tribute to Kurosawa—before, that is, the true after-effect of the fight is captured, poignantly, in the uncertain and fearful responses of the children (Clarke Hallum as Ralphie, and Matthew Lewis as younger brother, Randy). Though the show has laughs aplenty, such moments convince us that this production is not filled with empty calories.
Gratifying and tuneful full-stage fantasies display Ralphie’s hopes (in “Ralphie to the Rescue”) and fears (“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” in which his teacher, Miss Shields, transforms into a wicked witch). In the midst, Pasek and Paul give Ralphie’s mother (Rachel Bay Jones) two wistful gems, the songs “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That.” Though actor John Bolton’s physical humor enlivens the Old Man, his solo, “The Genius on Cleveland Street” is less effective.
Walt Spangler’s set seemed noticeably skimpier than most professional touring shows. Its’ greatest miscalculation: a textured white backdrop that seemed more stucco than snowflakes. A series of technical gaffes also marred the second act on opening night, before turning a Christmas sunrise into a bizarre, halfway affair.
Still, this adaptation displayed humor and heart as it recounted the hopes, fears and needs of a middle-class family now more than half a century ago. If the ending’s absolutely pat, the journey there is not.
I’d call it a decent show. Just don’t forget whose it is.
CORRECTION: We originally reported that A CHRISTMAS STORY was the first co-presentation by Broadway Series South and N.C. Theatre. The companies previously staged productions of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, PARTS 1 & 2. We regret the error.