Jean Shepherd’s collection of short stories, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, portrays life in a 1960s gritty, working class town in Northern Indiana, described as “where the state line ends abruptly in the icy, detergent-filled waters of that queen of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan.” The portrayal feels harsh, but it turns out to be loving, as only a former resident who escaped can feel. All of the love, as well as the hurt and anger comes through in the book’s first real story, “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid.”
The town is a loser place (you can tell because the junior high school is named for Warren G. Harding). Nevertheless, Shepherd’s phrase that captures its character is succinct: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” That phrase echoes over and over in San Diego Musical Theatre’s splashy and funny holiday show for the whole family, A Christmas Story.
The words serve as a predictable reaction to young Ralphie’s attempts to convince anyone who will listen that he wants a prized BB gun for Christmas. It is one element of the original story that was preserved in the 1983 film, which moved the time of the story to the 1940s and made other changes. A couple of different musical theatre versions of the film were created. The one that stuck features a score by wunderkinds Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Greatest Showman”), and its book (by Joseph Robinette) has sanded off the rough spots in favor of nostalgia for a time when a boy could ask for a BB gun and not cause worry about what he might do with it – other than shoot his eye out.
The production needs a large cast, and there are 24 in the company, many of them child performers. That’s a lot of people to wrangle, but Director Kirsten Chandler keeps everyone moving. The adult cast members also model a professionalism that has to rub off on the young performers. Those adults include Steve Gunderson as grown-up Ralph, the narrator; Jake Millgard and Heidi Meyer as the parents of Ralphie (John Perry (JP) Wishchuk) and Randy (Abraham German); and Barbara Schoenhofer as Ralphie’s teacher, Miss Shields. Each of the adult performers gets a song in which to shine, and Ms. Meyer shines particularly in her Act 2 number, “Just Like That,” one that stands out in a score by two promising composers who were just getting started.
Jill Gorrie’s choreography both holds the production together and energizes it. Included are more than one tap number that is danced with great precision by most, if not all of the children. (How they found that many kids who can tap must be a story in itself.) Ms. Gorrie’s work here rivals the best I’ve seen from SDMT.
Finding enough space for a large-cast show at the Horton Grand Theatre is always a challenge. Part of the challenge is solved by putting musical director Don LeMaster and his band in an upstairs room. The other solution comes from creative and technical elements. Set Design Mathys Herbert comes up with some very creative ideas about how to portray the various locales. Michelle Miles’ lighting design compliments the settings. Janet Pitcher designed the many costumes, and Jon Fredette sound design mixed the upstairs band with the on-stage voices in a manner that never found one element overshadowing the other.
Despite a vague Ozzie and Harriet vibe, mixed with a whiff of Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows, A Christmas Story ought to fill the need for family entertainment during the holidays – as long as you don’t mind watching the performances of talented kids who aren’t your own.
Performs at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave, San Diego, CA 92101, through December 29, 2019: Wednesdays at 7 pm, Thursdays at 7 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm. Parking is difficult in the Gaslamp District of downtown San Diego, but there are a variety of garages and lots for pay parking, at a variety of prices. See the SDMT website for a parking offer in the garage across Fourth Avenue from the theatre entrance. Cast members also include: Spencer Kearns, Joshua Hitchcock, Jordan Eddington, Mark Mahaffey, Chris Bona, Trevor Rex, Aaron Morgan Shaw. Drew Bradford, Emma Nossal, Morgan Carberry, Beatrice Crosbie, Jillian Barnett, Hayden Crocker, Lauren Muehl, Holland Hartpence, Talia Silver. Isabella Pruter, and Milly Cocanig. This review was based on the press opening performance, Saturday, November 30.