This ‘Christ­mas Story’ slightly changes its tune, but re­mains nos­tal­gic fun

The Charlotte Observer - - Front Page - BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN

Arts cor­re­spon­dent

Some mu­si­cals thrive on ro­mance, high drama, epic scale, mys­tery and/or tunes that bur­row into your ears to stay. “A Christ­mas Story: The Mu­si­cal” re­lies on one virtue: Wry warmth tinged with unironic nos­tal­gia.

That will be sat­is­fy­ing for fans of the 1983 movie on which it’s faith­fully based, a lit­tle less so for peo­ple who met Jean Shep­herd’s char­ac­ters through his book “In God We Trust: All Oth­ers Pay Cash,” maybe a bit less than that for peo­ple who heard the mono­logues on his WOR-AM show from New York in the 1960s.

I was one of those, smug­gling a tran­sis­tor ra­dio into my bed­room to lis­ten to rem­i­nis­cences of the De­pres­sion in­stead of do­ing high-school home­work.

Shep­herd’s avun­cu­lar, faintly sar­donic de­liv­ery has been amped up for the ac­tor play­ing him in the Broad­way Lights tour now at Ovens Au­di­to­rium.

The en­gag­ing Chris Carsten re­lies on bois­ter­ous ex­u­ber­ance to make the nar­ra­tion clear to the back of the big house, and the same idea has been ap­plied to the whole pro­duc­tion.

The most fa­mil­iar in­ci­dents from these loosely au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal sto­ries have been pre­served: Ral­phie Parker’s im­be­cilic pal Flick lick­ing a frozen flag­pole, the pre­da­tions of the hounds liv­ing next door — two ca­nines on­stage are re­mark­ably well­trained — and Mr. Parker’s de­vo­tion to a gar­ish plas­tic leg that serves as a lamp.

Once again, the mod­est ten­sion rests on whether Ral­phie will get a BB gun for Christ­mas.

But these events must be sung about in a mu­si­cal that’s 45 min­utes longer than the movie, of­ten in ex­tended num­bers that over­stretch the youth­ful gifts of com­posers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. There’s a sig­nif­i­cant gulf be­tween read­ing or hear­ing about Ral­phie’s de­spair over a medi­ocre school es­say and watch­ing his teacher tap-dance through a six-minute num­ber with class­mates in mob at­tire chant­ing “You’ll shoot your eye out.” (Props to young Wy­att Oswald, who taps fu­ri­ously as the mob “boss.”)

Pasek and Paul fin­ished the first ver­sion of this show at 24, eight years be­fore win­ning a Tony and Os­car in 2017 for “Dear Evan Hansen” and “La La Land.”

The neo­phytes wrote homages and pas­tiches to older styles or com­posers: Their songs for Ral­phie’s ever-un­der­stand­ing mother sound like chips from Steven Sond­heim’s work­bench.

The cast gives broadly ap­peal­ing per­for­mances, from Paul No­brega’s faux­gruff dad to Bri­ana Gantsweg’s saintly mom. Randy, Ral­phie’s lit­tle brother, gen­er­ally op­er­ates at two lev­els — whin­ing and scream­ing — yet Jasper Daven­port some­how makes him agree­able. Two ac­tors ro­tate in the role of Ral­phie; I saw Michael Nor­man, whose like­abil­ity and stage pol­ish are re­mark­able in his first pro­fes­sional role.

Di­rec­tor Matt Lenz presents this mu­si­cal bauble on a set that usu­ally con­sists of a round back­drop; it sug­gests ei­ther a snow globe or a Christ­mas or­na­ment, un­der­lin­ing the fan­tasy el­e­ment.

Shep­herd him­self was a bit of a fan­ta­sist, telling us of a world where bul­lies can be dis­pelled with a good firm punch and par­ents smil­ingly shake off all woes.

At its best, this show taps into that rosy view of a De­pres­sion that leaves no­body de­pressed.

P.S. I can’t re­mem­ber the last Broad­way tour that sold no sou­venirs. Surely there’s a mar­ket for minia­ture plas­tic legs that light up?

This story is part of an Ob­server un­der­writ­ing project with the Thrive Cam­paign for the Arts, sup­port­ing arts jour­nal­ism in Char­lotte.

GARY EMORD NETZLEY

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