Thanks to the magic of the 24-hour TV-movie marathon, the phrase "You'll shoot your eye out!" has become as much a part of our Yuletide vocabulary as Tiny Tim's eternally precious "God bless us everyone!"
This year, you don't have to wait until TBS' Christmas Eve kickoff of 24 hours of "A Christmas Story" to hear that spirit-crushing admonition. Not surprisingly, it resounds throughout "A Christmas Story - The Musical," which is having its Philly premiere through Jan. 10 at the Walnut Street Theatre.
The mantra-repeated here by a variety of authority figures, from parents to teachers to Santa himself, is just one of the familiar elements from the 1983 film that comprise this whimsical (and, at times, downright silly) sleigh-full of fun centered around a 9-year-old boy's desire to receive a BB gun as a Christmas gift.
Several of the beloved film's other touchstones are also checked off, including the "triple-dog dare" that results in schoolboy Flick getting his tongue stuck on a freezing metal flagpole, the next-door neighbors' hounds-from-hell that constantly harass young Ralphie Parker's dad and, of course, the lamp in the form of a shapely female leg ensconced in a fishnet stocking and balanced on a stiletto-heeled pump. It is the anticipation of these icons on the part of the audience that may be the presentation's most valuable commodity.
Simply poaching from a film (and in this case, numerous short stories by the late humorist-radio personality Jean Shepherd) doesn't necessarily guarantee a successful transition to the stage. But thanks to the musical's creative team and the Walnut cast, "A Christmas Story" is pretty much everything fans of the movie could want. Thankfully, scripter Joseph Robinette neither deleted any of the story's key components nor felt compelled to manufacture a Hallmark-style message or ending to what is by any measure a most unsentimental holiday tale. However, the play does close on a note that threatens to reach the outskirts of schmaltz. But that bit of squishiness hardly makes a dent in what comes before it.
That includes plenty of toe-tapping (and even catchy) numbers from the composing team of Justin Paul and Ardmore native Benj Pasek. Sure, most of their tunes fall into the contemporary trap of being mostly dialogue and exposition, but the youthful team certainly knows its way around a song, and "A Christmas Story" portends great things for the future from a couple of guys who just turned 30.
During a recent performance, Liam Keenan (who shares the role with Craig Mulhern Jr.) was both believable and sympathetic in the role of Ralphie, the kid whose life revolves around acquiring the BB gun. The youngster doesn't have a jaw-dropping voice that makes it hard to believe it's coming out of a child's mouth. But in this case, that he sounds more like a real kid plays in his and the production's favor.
The adult principals are excellent, starting with Christopher Sutton as The Old Man, Ralphie's perpetually harried, often (comically) foul-mouthed, but loving father. Sutton finds the comedy in the role, and is a delight in every scene. Lyn Philistine as Mother doesn't get to show off like Sutton, but she, too, plays the role exactly right.
Also praiseworthy are Ellie Mooney as Ralphie's teacher, Miss Shields (and as the star of a speakeasy-set fantasy production number titled - what else? - "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!"), and Bill Van Horn, who portrays Shepherd as the onstage narrator. However, it is a tad puzzling that "Shep" (as we longtime fans knew him) is rendered as an avuncular, down-home figure; the real Jean Shepherd was, in his 1960s heyday, considered one of the hippest and most sophisticated personalities on the New York media scene.
Adding to the fun is the troupe of talented children who play Ralphie's friends and classmates.
All operate under the spot-on supervision of director James Rocco and choreographer Linda Goodrich which, combined with the above, makes "A Christmas Story" the must-see production of the 2015 holiday season.
* We'll leave you with this early present: A link to Jean Shepherd telling the Red Ryder BB gun story on a radio broadcast from Dec. 25, 1972 (archive.org/details/19721225RedRyder).
Enjoy. And remember: You'll shoot your eye out!