The Tony Award race for Best Musical of the 2012-2013 season was a hard-fought battle between Matilda and Kinky Boots. The most delightful musical of the season, though -- and the one with the finest score -- was the limited holiday engagement of A Christmas Story. The show arrived in November, received the most superlative reviews of the season (far cheerier than either Matilda or Kinky Boots), packed the folks in at the Lunt, and then departed as scheduled to make way for the incoming Motown. Had the theatre been available, A Christmas Story might have been able to extend well past its scheduled eight weeks. It's a seasonal show, yes, but so are Annie and 1776.
That was Yuletide, 2012. This year, the producers arranged a seven-week mini-tour, starting with visits to Hartford and Boston and winding up at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, where it opened Thursday night (through December 29). This has been the business model from the start, with the show unfolding its tent every fall for the Thanksgiving/Christmas crowds. A Christmas Story premiered in Kansas City in 2009, after which the producers made the canny decision to throw out the score and bring in new songwriters; after the 2010 edition, they replaced the director and choreographer as well.
When producers make drastic decisions like these, nowadays, they are usually counter-productive desperation moves. In this case, each choice paid off handsomely. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- at the time, untried college grads just starting out -- have written a joyous, endearing and delectable score. Very funny, too. This is in the old-fashioned musical vein, yes; but that's what the material, which takes place in 1940, calls for. (When the songs are good -- like in Guys and Dolls or Kiss Me, Kate, say -- nobody considers the score old fashioned.) Pasek and Paul, as it happens, are not simply purveyors of traditional fare; this was demonstrated even before A Christmas Story reached the Lunt, by their under-appreciated Dogfight.
A Christmas Story is in fine shape at Madison Square Garden, although what it looks like from the far perches of the 4,000-seat venue is hard to say. The four adult stars have returned. Dan Lauria charms his way through his role as the strolling narrator, John Bolton carries the show as a limber-legged comedian in the Ray Bolger/Dick Van Dyke mold, Erin Dilly provides the emotional center as the mother of the clan, and English/Australian import Caroline O'Connor steals every laugh she can mine as the local school marm. Last year's excellent Ralphie and Randy have outgrown their roles, alas. The parts are now played by talented newcomers Jake Lucas and Noah Baird. The show's hidden asset, ten-year-old tap specialist Luke Spring, happily remains in place.
As before, director John Rando (Urinetown) keeps the show floating on laughter, with just about everyone in the thirty person cast given a moment or two to shine. Choreographer Warren Carlyle (After Midnight) whips things to a frenzy with three zanily-contrived production numbers: "Ralphie to the Rescue," a nine-year-old's fantasy of the Wild West; "A Major Award," a ludicrous song-and-dance led by Bolton which expands to include a stage-full of illumined lady's leg lamps; and the knockout showstopper "You'll Shoot Your Eyes Out," a Capone-like speakeasy dream with Ms. O'Connor doing a challenge dance against Master Spring, the pint-size tapper with a smile nearly as wide as the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
A Christmas Story is a modern-day rarity: a holiday family show that'll enthrall the kids while offering adults flavorful, top-flight entertainment.