By JOAN TADDIE
Theatres everywhere know that December is the month that families look for sentimental, feel-good stories that will entertain everyone from grandpa to the “littles.” The Henegar Center for the Arts picked a winner when they included “A Christmas Story – The Musical” in this year’s season.
Nominated for three 2013 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score, this production fills the audience with holiday nostalgia from the opening number until the last joyous note. Based on the classic 1983 movie, this fresh new musical adaptation of radio personality and humorist Jean Shepherd’s story, centers on Ralphie, a bespectacled Indiana 9-year old during the Depression, who has an active imagination and a fierce desire for a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas.
Book writer, Joseph Robinette, tells a story that is heartfelt and witty with a delightful score that includes beautiful melodies and tender and clever lyrics by young composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Many of the songs are also skillfully written as the lively and dramatic background music for Ralphie’s imagined adventures. Pasek and Paul recently opened their new Broadway show, “Dear Evan Hansen” to rave reviews.
Terrence Girard, as the narrator Jean Shepherd, serves as a guide for the audience as he introduces memories he has of a Christmas long ago when he planned and plotted to have a Red Ryder BB Gun under his Christmas tree. Director Hank Rion skillfully moves Mr. Girard in and out of the production; sometimes observing the family unseen, sometimes participating as a character, but always silently rooting for Ralphie and his Christmas quest.
It doesn’t take long for the audience to recognize and audibly respond to similar memories from their past as they get a peek at Ralphie’s family life. Who didn’t have one sibling who refused to eat their dinner every night and had to be coaxed creatively by your mother? Who doesn’t remember the exhausting ritual of getting into a snowsuit or the taste of soap in your mouth because you let a forbidden word out in the presence of your parents? Who really wanted a BB gun, but your mother always told you, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”The four actors in Ralphie’s family are outstanding. Rob Landers plays Ralphie’s father or as he is referred to by this Middle America family, the Old Man. His entrances are full of energetic bluster and mumbled “blue” language that gets funnier as the show progresses. He desperately wants to win a crossword puzzle contest and shows his vocal strength when he sings “The Genius on Cleveland Street” with Mother. The Old Man is not perfect and lets the “blue” language fly when he’s angry, but he has a tender side that shows his big heart and how much he loves his family.
Brenda Sheets couldn’t be more perfect as Mother. One of the most beautiful songs in the show, “Just Like That,” takes the audience’s breath away with its tender and loving honesty as she laments about how quickly the childhood years pass. She sings effortlessly, and her beautiful tones match her radiant face as she cooks and cleans and loves her family unconditionally and with easily delivered humor.
As the youngest son Randy, Michael Havkin plays the part with focus and energy. His face is always expressive as he reacts to everything that is going on around him. For his young age, Michael has a keen sense of comedy and his vocals are fabulous.
Aidan Holihan as Ralphie wows the audience with his amazing and powerful vocals right from the start of the show. He continues to impress the audience throughout the production with his acting chops and stage presence that is way beyond his young age.
Two other standouts from this large and talented cast are Erin Frank who plays Ralphie’s “mean” schoolteacher, Mrs. Shields, and Adam Lucker who plays the cranky department store Santa. They both perform on stage with many of the kids in the ensemble, and the chemistry creates lots of laughs for the audience.
There are many big creative production numbers in this show that the audience loves. It takes the talents of the creative team of director Hank Rion, choreographer Amanda Cheyenne Manis, and vocal director Kaimi Lucker to design and get them production ready. Part of the process also includes the set designer, Brighid Reppert. On opening night, it was a well-deserved tribute to Ms. Reppert and her crew to receive applause for the set as the overture ended. Kudos also to music director and conductor Jordan Evans and his orchestra, Vanessa A. Glenn for her many creative costumes, Thom Restivo, Sr. for his sound design, and Joshua Huss for his lighting design.As the production is coming to an end the narrator, Terrence Girard, talks to the audience about what was and is really important about families. A great actor knows how to grab this “moment” and touch each audience member. And he did.
Go see this show! Bring everyone in the family. It will be good for your heart!
SIDE O’ GRITS: “A Christmas Story – the Musical” runs through Dec. 18 at the Henegar Center, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $16 to $26. The show performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call 321-723-8698, visit Henegar.org or click onto their ad.