Intimate Christmas Story Rules the Big Stage

Janos Gereben on December 5, 2017
Jean Shepherd (Christopher Reber) kicks off the show on WOR radio. | Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Decades ago, in Manhattan, Jean Shepherd kept me up half the night, day after day. “Old Shep” started telling a simple little story on WOR, and as that unique voice droned on, it was impossible to get away; sleep had to wait.

Slumber is out of the question again this month as San Francisco Playhouse is presenting a big, Broadway-grade production of A Christmas Story: The Musical, based on one of Shepherd’s best-known stories, about the excitement of anticipating the holidays in Indiana just ahead of Pearl Harbor and before the country changed forever.

The cast and crew of A Christmas Story: The Musical at San Francisco Playhouse | Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Directed by Susi Damilano, a large cast of two dozen singing actors, mostly children, rocks the stage, on Jacquelyn Scott’s big, multistory set, in the San Francisco Playhouse’s production. We have come far from Shep’s nocturnal musings heard alone in low volume (earphones were in their infancy back then) to the Playhouse’s crowded splendor. 

The real Jean Shepherd in action

Shepherd’s stories were mostly of his Midwestern childhood, small, intimate chronicles, irresistible, candid, without artsiness or pretension. I never understood how these personal recollections “from a simpler time” could be transformed to the big screen, but Bob Clark's 1983 A Christmas Story did it well enough to create TNT’s “24 Hours of A Christmas Story” - the annual, 12 consecutive telecasts of the film on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul took the film and some of the original Shepherd material to create the musical in 2009, well received on Broadway and nominated for a number of awards. Pasek and Paul went on to even greater glory with the score for La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen.

Plot and music are uniformly simple, which makes this spectacular production all the more praiseworthy. The nut of the story is nothing more than nine-year-old Ralphie's wish — no, unconditional demand — for a specific Christmas present, namely an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model BB Gun.

Ralphie (Jonah Broscow), supposedly 9 years old, hangs a 10 | Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The music is almost all recitative/ parlando/ “Sprechstimme,” enabling the star of the show to sing and shine through it all: Jonah Broscow, who plays Ralphie, supposedly nine, looking just a few years older (and with a resume mysteriously indicating decades of theater experience), must be heard and seen to be believed. He knocks everything from “Ralphie to the Rescue!” to the “Parker Family Sing-Along” to “Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana” way out of the park.

All the children are marvelous, individually and as a large chorus, but the grownups are doing great too, led by Ralphie's parents — Abby Haug as Mother and Ryan Drummond as Dad, both comic geniuses — and especially, Katrina Lauren McGraw as Miss Shields, the kind of teacher every kid should have. Christopher Reber is Jean Shepherd, providing narration. 

Music Director Dave Dobrusky’s small, live band, hidden upstage, performs well, if somewhat noisily, but the uncredited sound engineer balances the amplification of everybody and everything sufficiently that almost all the lyrics come across. Helping to deal with the vicissitudes of electronics is the director’s insistence on clear diction, realized well by the young cast.

Chances are A Christmas Story: The Musical will become a Playhouse perennial, adding comfort and joy to the Nutcracker-Messiah-Christmas Carol season.  Through Jan. 13. Tickets available online.