PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Christmas Story; Rifling Through Holiday Memories
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of A Christmas Story, The Musical.
John Bolton, a long-stemmed, sitcom-dad type who has been too long in coming to Broadway stardom, rules the unruly Indiana roost in holiday trim in A Christmas Story, a musical version of the 1983 movie that TNT has turned into a seasonal perennial.
In heated moments, he spews forth a streak of blue blazes, working in dirty words "the way painters work in oils." Not to worry, though: it's all garbled gobbledygook to the tender young ears on stage and in the audience of the Lunt-Fontanne where this homefront frolic just bowed Nov. 19 and runs 'til Dec. 30 in all its G-rated glory.
A con amore remembrance of Christmas past, it comes via the late radio personality and humorist Jean Shepherd, first set down in book form as "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" and then as a screenplay. To his ever-lasting credit, adapter Joseph Robinette has shoved huge loads of Shepherd's brittle sensibilities and dialogue onto the stage and retained a mother lode of its idiosyncratic set-pieces: the home furnace that fights back, the pink bunny pajamas, the tongue-stuck-to-the-flagpole, the bad department-store Santa and his elf henchmen, the chorine's-leg lamp, the Chinese duck Christmas feast, and quite a few of the high-flying fantasies that take over our imaginative, mite-sized Walter Mitty hero of nine, Ralphie Parker.
"Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun" is the big want song — number two in the Playbill, but paramount in Ralphie's book — and it's always being shot down by Mom and Santa alike with "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out," yet another tune title from a cheery, easily engaging score by a couple of under-30 Broadway newbies, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Though the show is set in 1940, it plays slightly older, more postwar. Boys could still sing and scheme about getting a gun for Christmas. I'd place the period at 1946, my last childhood Christmas as a believer.
The opening-night party pushed the envelope farther west on 42nd Street than ever before — a half-block beyond espace, the former last-chance-saloon — to 12th Avenue. Lucky Strike Lanes, with its bowling alley and ping pong tables, was appropriately blue-collar but tolerated the smattering of tuxes (with vested interests, no doubt).
John Rando, a Texas-born director at home in tiny towns (Hammond, IA, here, and his Tony winner, Urinetown), specializes in making strong bonds among cast and crew, making him a good match for A Christmas Story. "I loved working on this show," he confessed with no coaxing at all, "especially because of the family we created with all these wonderful children. We really wanted to feature the children and give them something to take over the show with, and they did. They're special. Then I have a terrific leading man and leading lady, John Bolton and Erin Dilly. They do such good work. Then my little boy, Johnny Rabe, who's an awesome young man and a fantastic Ralphie. It's been a real pleasure because I have such a strong cast."
Rabe grew into the role. "I met Johnny Rabe last year. He was one of the supporting children, and we sorta saw him as perhaps a Ralphie, but we weren't sure, and then he came in and auditioned, and he was spectacular, and we gave him the part."
The Ralphie who originated the role and did it on tour is said to have been waylaid at the finish line by the awkward age. He's now smoking cigarettes and chasing girls. (Kidding.)
"Zac," said Rando, "is an amazing, amazing little guy — so charming and so sweet and such a funny, funny young actor. He just had his tenth birthday the other day."
There is an even shorter, and younger, scene-stealer on that stage — an aptly named nine-year-old, Luke Spring, who sprang into choreographer Warren Carlyle's line of vision in the last Astaire Awards and was immediately put in the show and is now briefly showcased with a high-stepping speakeasy doxy (Caroline O'Connor, who, outside of Ralphie's hyperactive imagination, functions as his priggish schoolmarm).
"The kids are the stars of the show," Carlyle said, "and I love choreographing them. The idea always was to give them as much opportunity to shine as possible."
This raucous speakeasy riff — done to the aforementioned "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!" — echoes that 1976 moppets-as-mobsters movie, "Bugsy Malone," with Scott Baio and Jodie Foster — and is blithely dropped into the show out of nowhere.
"I think that's the advantage of developing a show out of town," reasoned Pasek on the basis of his first show out of town. "We're so lucky we got to develop it in Seattle and out of town on a five-city tour, and we got to really collaborate with John and Warren and sit down and talk about what was the ideal situation for a new number."
Seconded the other songwriter: "We had another number in there, and it was working fine, but we really wanted to make it pop and spectacular for Broadway, and so we all got together and said, 'Ralphie has this vivid imagination. In the movie, he has these western hoedowns.' We wondered what else of that time frame would be so fun for kids. Well, they're near Chicago. It's a Chicago mob. It's a gangster scene, so it's all the kids being gangsters. All together, we came up with that idea."
O'Connor, in a torrid red dress, went to town on that number, turning on a dime from teacher to tart. "It's inspiring and tiring," she said of the sequence. "Those are the two words I use to try to keep up with those kids. They just knock it right out of the park every single time — and they are doing nine shows a week. It's thrilling."
She's especially happy songwriters Pasek and Paul added a little oomph to her Miss Shields characters. "I love the angle they've taken," she trilled. "In the film, she becomes a witch, but it's really nice that they've turned her into this kind of moll character so there's this nice chance to show off with a bit of a dance number."
O'Connor has showed off before—in Broadway's Chicago and the last movie named "Moulin Rouge" and as Ethel Merman to Kevin Kline's Cole Porter in "Delovely."
Pasek then ran with it: " . . . and to do what musical theatre does best, which is get in the mind of somebody and give you their inner thoughts, so that was really fun."
The very-much-in-charge mother went from Melinda Dillon in a frazzled contemporary wig in the film to Erin Dilly in a domestic blonde 'do on stage. "Here's the thing about Melinda Dillon," said Dilly. "What I took shamelessly from her is a woman who's the heart of the family, with a very sly, ironic sense of humor that comes out when it needs to. She's the glue. She holds that family together.
And her two songs by Pasek and Paul underline that quality. "Those little boys — I call them little boys because they're significantly younger than me — have wisdom beyond their years. They have such passion and connection to this art form. This is the very beginning for them. I can't wait for the world to catch up with them."
A Tony-nominated "Truly Scrumptious" from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dilly finds herself "riding shotgun" again, tooling around the stage in a vintage car. "This one doesn't fly and gets a flat, but there's a lot of love in it. I do miss my little flying car — I'm not going to lie — but, for the 1940s, this is a pretty nice jalopy."
Norman Maine only brooded in the shadows about his actress-wife's success, but Dilly's actor-hubby, Steven R. Buntrock came on crutches. "I was cleaning the gutters right before Hurricane Sandy hit, and I fell two stories from my house," he said. "That was three weeks ago. This is my first step to get back on board — to go to my wife's show." (She couldn't dispense with the press fast enough and get to him.)
Director David Esbjornson was doing his Norman Maine off to the side, while his Significant Other took to the spotlight and question. "Elizabeth Hope Clancy, my partner, did the clothing for the show," he explained. His next, he said, is the tour to Australia of his last Broadway show, Driving Miss Daisy, with Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines. "Angela's doing the part that Vanessa did, but everybody else is the same. We rehearse in Sydney, we open in Brisbane, and then we go Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. We're all looking forward to Australia."
Bolton-from-the-blue, he could be called — finally commanding the star spot as the hapless head of this household. His usual showbiz savvy surfaces on cue, and he socks his two big numbers, "The Genius on Cleveland Street" and "A Major Award." Contrary to W. C. Field's edict, he seems to thrive working with children and animals.
In fact, he covered for the two mangy hounds who harass his character throughout the show and eventually make off with the Thanksgiving turkey. On opening night, one forgot to show up for work and the other got lost in the chase — until Bolton waved a drumstick at him. They've never done that before, said the wife of their trainer, William Berloni. And, yes, the dogs would be getting notes. (Berloni trained the original, and the current, Sandy, in Annie — and their understudies.)
"What I like about my character," said Bolton, "is that he's a little bit of me and a little bit of my father — and, I hope, a little bit of Darren McGavin, who was terrific in the movie. I love this role. I'm so proud that they have stuck with me. I did it at Kansas City Rep a few years ago, then in Seattle and on tour last year — and, when they said they were going to do it on Broadway, I was bracing myself a little bit for 'You'd better be ready, John. They're going to get someone who was on a TV show in the '80s.' I braced myself for that, so I'm very grateful to them for hanging on to me."
Irony of ironies: the producers did reach out to a star of '80s TV and gave him top-billing over Bolton — Dan Lauria, who played the penny-pinching pop of "The Wonder Years" — but they don't compete. Lauria's is the older, reflective Ralphie, recalling his comic childhood, having grown up into Jean Shepherd.
Shepherd presents slightly more of a problem. "With this show, it was a little harder. I could do his voice better but it doesn't quite go with the music sometimes."
His Tony-nominated Mrs. Lombardi, Judith Light, gave her blessing. "She flew in last night to see the show, and loved it. She was crying at the end. She's a softie, though. The show's a crowd-pleaser. We were surprised how well we did with ticket sales during the previews. We're almost sold out, and there's good word-of-mouth."
Fifth-billed among the show's 15 producers is Peter Billingsley, who is stuck indelibly in our memory back as the original Ralphie of the 1983 movie. He couldn't have been more euphoric. "It's been a heck of a journey. Tonight was extremely exciting. It's opening night on Broadway, my first — I'll never have a first one again.
"The movie was 30 years ago. When I heard about the musical three years ago, I got on board. It's a terrific idea. The tone of the story lends itself so well to song and dance in so many ways. There's a lot of emotion in the movie, but the music gives you a chance to go there. We just go a little further to places the movie didn't quite do."
His immediate plans are well laid-out. "We're going to keep this going [as an annual attraction] a few years, and I have a TV show on CBS called 'Sullivan and Son' that stars Dan Lauria, so I'll go back to work on that right after the first of the year."
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