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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 17, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 51
Jean Shepherd's classic A Christmas Story turns into a musical for 5th Avenue
Arts & Entertainment
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Jean Shepherd's classic A Christmas Story turns into a musical for 5th Avenue

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

A Christmas Story: The Musical!
5th Avenue Theatre
Through December 30


There is so much good about the new musical adaptation of Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story - the beloved film about childhood in the 1940s in Indiana and his earlier best-selling collection of short stories, In God We Trust - All Others Pay Cash - that it seems churlish to point out the many problems the new show has on its route to 'Christmas classic,' other regional theaters, and maybe, just maybe, New York and Broadway. So, in the spirit of the season, let's put the emphasis on what's right about the new stage musical.

There are enough high spirits and high energy on the 5th Avenue Theatre's stage to light up most of the Emerald City for the month of December. Delightful children sing and dance, cheerful adults sing and dance. There's much singing, much dancing, a lot of mugging, and a few touching sentimental moments. Performances are bright and sharp, and the budget-minded staging uses creativity to fill the 5th Avenue's stage. The large cast is tops in every department.

John Bolton, a New York veteran, plays the role of the Old Man (as in Ralphie's father) and he is superb in every moment. A tall, lanky Jimmy Stewart type - maybe a Dick Van Dyke type - Bolton knows his way around the musical stage. His 'The Genius on Cleveland Street' early in Act One may be inspired by early vaudeville, but Bolton sells it to the back of the top balcony. He's a force of nature and hopefully he will return to Seattle soon in a stronger show. His scene with his 'artistic' knee-high lamp prize is strong, and the production number nicely builds to a visual highlight that supports the scene beautifully.

Seattle's Frank Corrado gets to 'be' Jean Shepherd, telling his Christmas memory on his popular 1970s radio program. His is the voice of reason in the frantic whirl of the musical moments. And the show gets a plus for incorporating many radio-era sound effects in the tale - a prop man 'walking' an empty pair of shoes to get the right sound, door chimes from musical instruments. Corrado's winning performance makes this reviewer wonder if it's too late for Corrado to actually read the original Jean Shepherd stories on local radio this or another holiday season. A quartet of radio singers add class - and some great harmonies - to the production.

Seattle's Anne Allgood is just that: always good, often brilliant. She plays Ralphie's mother - stern at times, giving at key moments, always loving, but alas, always put upon. She and Carol Swarbrick - a Broadway veteran who now lives in the Emerald City area - are walking illustrations of actors triumphing over the material in this new show. Swarbrick tackles the thankless role of the local schoolteacher who gets her best bits in fantasy outings - like a wonderful Wicked Witch of the West, complete with flying monkeys.

Olympia's Clarke Hallum is a constant delight as Ralphie, the kid who wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Even though everyone claims he'll shoot his eye out with it, he knows it is the only gift that will make him happy. Hallum, an 11-year-old sixth-grader, is remarkable - he has energy and stamina, as well as acting and vocal skill. Like many of the large group of children in the show, he is very hard to understand in the vast 5th Avenue. The sound levels seemed well adjusted at last week's official opening night - but much of the show turned to mush before the songs, and even some of the dialogue got out to the audience. Any show written to give so much material to child actors faces the same problem, but A Christmas Story: The Musical! seemed more problematical than many.

Quick summary: bright, vibrant production, a natural for family audiences, especially at the holiday time.

Enter Scrooge McHamlin. The show officially opened a year ago at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre where Eric Rosen, the artistic director there, staged the show, as he does here. While the world premiere was well received and did solid box office, the producers thought the show could and should be better. The original songwriting team was dismissed and replaced, and a totally new score was written for the Seattle staging - the second in what is hoped will be a steady march to Broadway and a new 'cash cow' status for holiday shows. While the new score is fun, it is not very memorable, not even when hearing it performed onstage. Not one melody, not one fragment remains as the audience leaves the theater. Not every show with adorable children stage center can produce a 'Tomorrow' (as Annie famously did), but it seems imperative that some musical moments be more than serviceable.

A lot of the show contains subject matter that is questionable for a 'family show.' Several sequences illustrate the profanity that the Old Man is famous for. When Ralphie finally stands up to the neighborhood bullies, he blackens the skies of Indiana with a similar smear, 'and my mother heard.' (The show, of course, substitutes sound-alike vocabulary, but the impression of some very adult moments made some parents in the opening night audience clearly uncomfortable.) It may be no big deal in today's anything-goes vocabulary department, but it is a factor to consider in selling the show in 'family' slots. A lengthy department store sequence with a drunken Santa is another questionable - and trite - inclusion.

There's much to like in the new A Christmas Story: The Musical! It continues at the 5th Avenue Theatre - which is celebrating its 30th anniversary as a musical theater - through December 30. Ticket information is available at (206) 625-1900.

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