Some musicals thrive on romance, high drama, epic scale, mystery and/or tunes that burrow into your ears to stay. “A Christmas Story: The Musical” relies on one virtue: Wry warmth tinged with unironic nostalgia.
That will be satisfying for fans of the 1983 movie on which it’s faithfully based, a little less so for people who met Jean Shepherd’s characters through his book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash,” maybe a bit less than that for people who heard the monologues on his WOR-AM show from New York in the 1960s. I was one of those, smuggling a transistor radio into my bedroom to listen to reminiscences of the Depression instead of doing high-school homework.
Shepherd’s avuncular, faintly sardonic delivery has been amped up for the actor playing him in the Broadway Lights tour now at Ovens Auditorium. The engaging Chris Carsten relies on boisterous exuberance to make the narration clear to the back of the big house, and the same idea has been applied to the whole production.
The most familiar incidents from these loosely autobiographical stories have been preserved: Ralphie Parker’s imbecilic pal Flick licking a frozen flagpole, the predations of the hounds living next door — two canines onstage are remarkably well-trained — and Mr. Parker’s devotion to a garish plastic leg that serves as a lamp. Once again, the modest tension rests on whether Ralphie will get a BB gun for Christmas.
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But these events must be sung about in a musical that’s 45 minutes longer than the movie, often in extended numbers that overstretch the youthful gifts of composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. There’s a significant gulf between reading or hearing about Ralphie’s despair over a mediocre school essay and watching his teacher tap-dance through a six-minute number with classmates in mob attire chanting “You’ll shoot your eye out.” (Props to young Wyatt Oswald, who taps furiously as the mob “boss.”)
Pasek and Paul finished the first version of this show at 24, eight years before winning a Tony and Oscar in 2017 for “Dear Evan Hansen” and “La La Land.” The neophytes wrote homages and pastiches to older styles or composers: Their songs for Ralphie’s ever-understanding mother sound like chips from Steven Sondheim’s workbench.
The cast gives broadly appealing performances, from Paul Nobrega’s faux-gruff dad to Briana Gantsweg’s saintly mom. Randy, Ralphie’s little brother, generally operates at two levels — whining and screaming — yet Jasper Davenport somehow makes him agreeable. Two actors rotate in the role of Ralphie; I saw Michael Norman, whose likeability and stage polish are remarkable in his first professional role.
Director Matt Lenz presents this musical bauble on a set that usually consists of a round backdrop; it suggests either a snow globe or a Christmas ornament, underlining the fantasy element. Shepherd himself was a bit of a fantasist, telling us of a world where bullies can be dispelled with a good firm punch and parents smilingly shake off all woes. At its best, this show taps into that rosy view of a Depression that leaves nobody depressed.
P.S. I can’t remember the last Broadway tour that sold no souvenirs. Surely there’s a market for miniature plastic legs that light up?
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
‘A Christmas Story: The Musical’
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Ovens Auditorium, 2700 E. Independence Blvd.
Details: 704-372-1000, www.blumenthalarts.org.