“A Christmas Story, The Musical,” directed by Shawn Kettering, is presently playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland. The musical with book by Joseph Robinette, and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is based on the film “A Christmas Story” by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark which was based on Shepherd’s semi-fictional anecdote from his book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.” It was turned into a musical that opened in Kansas City and then was on Broadway for limited holiday runs in 2012 and 2013. In 2017 it was adapted for live television with an all-star cast.
The plot revolves around Ralphie (John Poncy) who wants a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas. As we wait in anticipation with Ralphie for his request to be answered, we also observe him dealing schoolyard bullies, his brother’s strange eating habits, his dad’s intense dislike of the next-door dogs and his father’s obsession with participating in crossword puzzle contests. It serves as a reminder of our own family memories and for most of us the love that can exist between parents and children.
“A Christmas Story, The Musical” does not disappoint the audience which has come to expect top notch production numbers, colorful costuming and excellent live music from Toby’s. What is of note in this production is the talent showcased by Kettering’s direction with the young cast. Ralphie is only nine and his brother, Randy (Patrick Ford) is even younger. Most of his classmates are about that age. All the actors are within a couple of years of elementary school age. The story is told to us by the real-life well-known radio storyteller, Jean Shepherd (David Bosley-Reynolds) who worked for decades at a radio station in New York City. Shepherd wrote several books and stories. This fiction is based on facts in Shepherd’s youth, and Shepherd narrates the story as if he were a grown-up Ralph.
The director, Kettering, needs to be especially commended for the intricate staging dealing not only with the adults but with these youngsters, and he pulls it off with two separate casts. Kettering knows how to make the best use of his performers, both young and adult, but he also makes the best use of Toby’s theatre in the round stage. When the scene is Santa’s workshop in the local department store, Santa (Russell Sunday) on a platform with a slide is rotated so we all can get a close look at the children on his lap until Santa is placed in a spot in front of a Christmas tree where he is visible to all for his scene with Ralphie. (If it sounds tricky, that’s because it was.)
Toby’s ‘A Christmas Story, The Musical’ is a like a cup of holiday eggnog. Its flavor is sweet and rich, and it will leave you feeling warm inside the whole Season.
(Toby’s production has two separate casts in the youth roles. This review reflects the cast members from Thursday, November 21, 2019. MTG’s reviewer, Michael Garvey, reviewed the cast from Wednesday, November 20, 2019.)
Poncy creates a multi-dimensional character in his portrayal of Ralphie. Ralphie can be fearful, but he also can defend himself. He is sometimes a good friend and brother, and the next minute is making sure he stays out of trouble even if his friend or sibling gets punished. His is clever but not a wiseacre. He can show his love and respect for his parents, but he also can see their flaws. All the young actors were extremely talented. They include Jezrael Agbor and James LaManna as Ralphie’s two friends, Flick and Schwartz. The rest of these wunderkind playing Ralphie’s classmates are Erin Cobbler as Mary Beth, Carly Greaver as Darla, Jonathan Mackrell as one of the bullies, Grover Dill (also Goggles Kid), Sophia Manicone as Esther Jane and Katherine Ford as Nancy. Jaxon Keller is a stand out as Scut Farkus the schoolyard bully. Jaxon is a seasoned performer. and his solo tap dance during the spectacular production number “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” is truly amazing.
Heather Beck plays Mother and Jeffrey Shankle The Old Man (a term Ralphie and Shepherd both use to refer fondly to their father). Beck’s Mother is flexible but protective. She knows her kids and expresses it tenderly in the song, “Just Like That,” teaching her sons what really is important in life. Shankle’s The Old Man also is a Norman Rockwell parent. He can be a little irritable as he is with the neighbor’s dogs and angry at his wife when she breaks his “trophy”. He also understands his boys, and we can see why Ralphie looks up to him. Both Beck and Shankle perform “Genius on Cleveland Street” and “Major Award” with finesse and humor, the latter with the Ensemble.
Jessica Bennett is Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields. We see the character mainly through Ralphie’s eyes and daydreams. Bennett’s talents are highlighted in “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” with the teacher and the students mentally transported to a 1920’s Speak-easy in Act II. In Act I Bennett and the young performers are part of the main character’s fantasy, “Ralphie to the Rescue!” Again, this is one of Toby’s outstanding production numbers.
Bosley-Reynolds as Shepherd narrates the show with wit and charm. I actually grew up in New York and remember Shepherd’s broadcasts. Bosley-Reynold is right on target in his portrayal.
The rest of the Ensemble includes Santina Maiolatesi as Mrs. Schwartz, David James as the Policeman, A. J. Whittenberger as the Fireman, Sylvern Groomes, Jr. as the Doctor, Patricia Targete as the Nurse, Coby Kay Callahan as Flick’s Mother, and Nia Savoy and Justin Calhoun as Chief Elves. Sunday’s Santa, who dislikes kids and drinks on the side, is very funny as is Morganne Chu’s Waitress at the Chinese restaurant.
The choreography by Tina Marie DeSimone and Mark Minnick as usual leaves you wanting more. Again, kudos for having all those kids stay in step. Dancing talent is one thing, but getting everyone to move as one is much harder.
Ross Scott Rawlings’s musical direction, again in Toby’s fashion, is more than just background. He and his orchestra keep the music fresh and lively which, because there are no recognizable songs in this show, proves the mastery of Rawlings and his musicians.
A.T. Jones’ costumes are colorful and meticulous to detail. Whether it is outfitting Ralphie’s silent movie or gangster fantasies or dressing the characters in 1940’s small town garb, Jones consistently helps create some everlasting visual treats.
David A. Hopkins is the Scenic/Lighting Designer. The hard part of doing set and lights at Toby’s is set has to come in and out quickly and the characters are constantly moving from one part of the stage to another. His set pieces are in period and never block the audience’s view. I particularly like his 1930’s family Oldsmobile at the end of Act I. The background scenery is warm and in the holiday spirit. It welcomes you as soon as you enter the theatre.
Mark Smedley’s Sound Design allows us to distinctly hear the higher-pitched voices of the young performers and never allows the music to overwhelm any of the singers.
Toby’s “A Christmas Story, The Musical” is like a cup of holiday eggnog. Its flavor is sweet and rich, and it will leave you feeling warm inside the whole Season.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.
“A Christmas Story The Musical” will be playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia MD 21044 until January 5, 2020. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 410-730-8311. Remember your admission also includes a chance to eat a Toby’s buffet which has some holiday specialties as well as their kitchen’s standards.