December 6, 2019
Exuberant musical is ‘A Christmas Story’ experience on steroids
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
For those seeking a grand holiday adventure with a time-honored seasonal story coupled with the transformative wonder of song and dance, A Christmas Story: The Musical is the Des Moines Community Playhouse’s is your ticket to fun. This is a dandy, a favorite present under a laden Christmas tree. The bar has reached new heights and audiences will long remember their experience as this latest family holiday offering infuses a fresh, expanded energy into the classic Jean Shepherd story.
This snarky collection of memories from the fertile mind of Jean Shepherd continues to expand its hallowed position in seasonal pop culture. Based on wonderful bits and pieces from his book, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” Shepherd’s work expanded from an award-winning written comedy piece published in Playboy magazine to the iconic 1983 film. A play version was adapted, then, just a few years ago, the inevitable and glorious evolution took it to a fully-feathered stage musical. One of the countless array of pleasantries with this production is that folks attending are entering with an anticipatory familiarity to the story, and leaving with the Broadway spectacle of adding song and dance expanding their affair with A Christmas Story.
From the opening charm of Adam Beilgard’s narration as the specter of Jean Shepherd, providing ongoing commentary to the action, this show captivates. Ryan Henzi is the quintessential Ralphie Parker – bespectacled, animated and completely capturing the hearts of the audience. Henzi sings, taps, and otherwise beguiles with his seasoned skills. One highlight is his “Red Ryder Carbine-Action BB Gun,” in concert with Beilgard, as he fantasizes owning the coveted treasure.
As his parents, Jackie Schmillen (Mother) and Brett Spahr (The Old Man) command whenever they are on stage. Schmillen finds another facet to her wealth of memorable stage performances, bringing a slightly understated and wonderfully complementary role to Spahr’s bombastic counterpart, the Olympic gold standard for creative cursing. Spahr has developed enough faux-curse words to fill its own dictionary, delivered with lough-out-loud ranting that would shame Yosemite Sam. Both can belt with the best, yet each show exceptional song-styling nuance in their numbers. Standout songs included Spahr’s “A Major Award,” complete with tapdancing leg lamps, and Schmillen’s “What a Mother Does.” Spahr is a master of physical shtick, and reminds us of the great musical theatre performers of bygone days, such as Danny Kaye and Donald O’Connor. Musical theatre gold.
These leads were able supported by a dynamic ensemble. The big production numbers include many student performers who deliver like seasoned troupers. “When You’re a Wimp” features Ralphie, brother Randy (given whiny perfection by Shea Beilgard), best friends Schwartz and Flick (wholly realized by Maddox Wajda and Davin Lyman), and other classmates is a masterful production number by the youthful part of this cast. “Ralphie to the Rescue!” radiates with its fantasy storytelling delivery, filling the hall with a pulsing energy that leaves broad grins on every face in the house. A special tip of the elf hat goes to Miss Shields, played with grace, humor and wonderful singing by Stephanie Schneider, and to the bully and his stoolie, Sam Nigg (as Scut Farkus) and Alexander Baker (Grover Dill).
Add a versatile design concept that flows well throughout the show, fills the imagination with every coveted location in this classic Christmas story, plus the imaginative magic of costume designer Angela Lampe’s vivid palette, and spot-on sound design (Michael Duede), lighting (Jim Trenberth), and the high-standard of musical direction from Brenton Brown, and this is a beautifully wrapped Christmas gift awaiting your presence. Don’t wait ‘til the last minute for this holiday gift – supplies are limited, and demand is more intense that for the Red Ryder Carbine-Action BB Gun…and, you won’t have to worry about shooting your eye out.
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