Nothing says “Christmas Spirit” these days like the sight of a beaming, bespectacled tow-headed 9-year-old pointing his new rifle into the cold dark of night and pulling the trigger. Nothing, that is, unless it’s another vision, this one eye-poppingly aglitter, of a sexy, spangled schoolteacher-turned-hoofer sellin’ it, surrounded by a bevy of prepubescent girls in can-can regalia, also sellin’ it.
Call me old fashioned, or politically correct or whatever you choose, but perhaps 2017 was not the season for Fox to present A Christmas Story, the musical adaptation of a modern classic film, as its seasonal live presentation. Not that the pedigree is wanting: the 2012 musical and the 1983 film were based on the homey raconteur Jean Shepherd’s memoir of growing up in small-town Indiana, and that Christmas when what he craved above all was a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun, with a compass in the stock (even knowing the word “stock” gives me chills; sorry).
The stage musical was by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who have had a smash year with Oscars for La La Land and Tonys for Dear Evan Hansen, and it put a sly spin on the sentimental proceedings. For the live telecast, Fox turned again to Marc Platt, the La La Land and Grease: Live producer, and his team, including Alex Rudzinski directing the live event and Scott Ellis (She Loves Me) sharing duties as director.
The show, which stretched over three hours, covered all the terrain established in the earlier iterations: Matthew Broderick appeared as the grown-up Ralphie telling the story of that circa-1940 Christmas, when he and his brother (Tyler Wladis) spent their lives dodging their over-protective mother and abusive father at home, and bullies at school, while preparing for Santa time. The stars in the cast include Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos as the parents, Jane Krakowski as theat sexy teacher, David Alan Grier and Fred Armisen as nasty Santa and his elf, Ana Gasteyer as the Jewish lady down the street and Ken Jeong in a couple of roles.
Technically, the presentation (from Warner Horizon Unscripted and Alternative Television) from the Warners back lot in Burbank, was proficient and offered some nifty tricks, including scenes that switched from color to monochrome and several of the fastest costume changes ever, along with pajama-clad kids cavorting in the snow.
But the revised book by Jonathan Tolins and Robert Cary drained whatever momentum and slyness wasn’t already leached out by that 180-minute slog. As a narrative, A Christmas Story relies on the narrator’s connection with both the audience and the actor playing his younger self (and there was some charm in the interaction between Broderick and young Andy Walken). But there’s no plot to speak of: Kid wants gun, kid gets gun. The meat is in the atmospherics, and in removing the fun, along with any suggestion of perspective, A Christmas Story is a bust. Dad is an obscenity-spewing blowhard who gets off on the female leg lamp he won in a crossword contest. His transition to loving father in the last seconds of the show was tough to swallow. A beloved scene in which a boy ends up with his tongue frozen to a lamp-post is as unappealing as this description of it. Where’s Harvey Fierstein when you need him?
Although the master designer William Ivey Long is credited with the costumes, they appeared to be off-the-rack from Old Navy, the show’s main sponsor (there was an Old Navy shop in the town square, too – er, 1940?). The exception was when Long strutted his stuff with the ever-slinky-winky Krakowski’s big number. But it was so out-of-place and tone-deaf in this moment of over-sexualized everything that you have to wonder if anybody was paying attention to, like, the world when this was being put together.