ON THE RECORD: A Christmas Story, Plus Mini-Albums of Shuffle Along and Blackbirds of 1928

By Steven Suskin
26 Feb 2012

John Bolton in A Christmas Story The Musical!
John Bolton in A Christmas Story The Musical!
Photo by Carol Rosegg

This week's column discusses the initial cast recording of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's A Christmas Story, plus four-song selections from the 1920s musicals Shuffle Along and Blackbirds of 1928.

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A Christmas Story The Musical!
To review, or not to review; that is the question. The cast recording of A Christmas Story — the holiday musical which played a successful five-city tour last fall — was released some months back, sold only in the five theatre lobbies. The production is presently in hiatus, with plans to regroup in the fall; this cast album, or conceivably a newer one, should reappear at that point.

Readers have been talking about — and asking about — the Christmas Story CD since it first appeared. My inclination was to wait until it is once more available for purchase. I have nonetheless been eyeing the copy on my shelf for eight weeks, with a hunch that the score by the up-and-coming team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul was something out-of-the-ordinary. I first came across the pair in early 2009 at Birdland, when John Bucchino invited them onstage to perform a song during his act.



I finally gave in and broke the cellophane seal the other day, leaving me with a conundrum of my own making: do I go ahead and write about it now, when it is fresh in my mind? Or do I wait until A Christmas Story is in the stores (or on the web) and readily available? As this turns out to be an entertaining and exciting score — and as a fair number of readers have already discovered it — I have opted to review it here and now. There are copies floating around at this point, and hopefully the CD will be back on official sale sooner rather than later.

The musical is derived from the 1983 movie, based on stories by humorist Jean Shepherd, about a nine-year-old in Indiana who knows just what he wants for Christmas: an Official Red Ryder Range Model Carbine Action BB Gun. (While this is a warm and friendly family film — and musical — suitable for all audiences, some of the Shepherd stories were first published in Playboy Magazine.)

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

A Christmas Story, with a book by Joseph Robinette, has received three distinct productions thus far. It showed promise at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre in late 2009, after which the producers saw fit to part ways with songs and songwriter. They gambled on the all-but-untried team of Pasek and Paul — a very wise gamble, it turned out — and opened the second version at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle in late 2010. The results were even better, encouraging the producers to schedule a holiday tour for 2011. They continued to make changes, adding to the mix Broadway talent in the persons of director John Rando (of Urinetown) and choreographer Warren Carlyle (of this season's Follies and Hugh Jackman Back on Broadway).

The present CD was recorded at the end of the Seattle run, with most of the Seattle cast performing the pre-Rando/Carlyle version. So the recording represents the show a few steps earlier than the most recent production; at least one of the songs seems to have been replaced in the interim.

The recording indicates that the film has been effectively adapted to the stage, although it is always dangerous to judge a musical by its score without the book. After a swinging overture — the time is the late '40s, just after the war — Pasek and Paul launch into an impressive opening sequence (recorded in four tracks) which introduces time, place, characters and theme. Imagine, doing all that in an extended musical scene, somewhat in the manner — though not the style — of Into the Woods.

The plot is derived from intertwined stories about the boy Ralphie (Clarke Hallum), who wants nothing more than that BB gun for Christmas; the Old Man, Ralphie's father (John Bolton), whose life is a continuous struggle; and the Mother (Liz Callaway), who gets two of the best songs, "What a Mother Does" and "Just Like That." Hallum and Bolton have been with the show since Kansas City, although the former — who is said to be excellent — might by now have outgrown his role. Callaway positively soars her way through her solos, which makes the songwriters and the show seem pretty wonderful. She has not appeared in any of the stage productions thus far, but from the sound of it would be a prime asset the next time out. Also brought in for the recording was Tom Wopat, as the narrator (Jean Shepherd).

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