Critic's Notebook: Fox's Musical 'A Christmas Story'

Matt Roush
Ray Mickshaw/ FOX

A CHRISTMAS STORY LIVE!: L-R: Cast members Chris Diamantopoulos, Maya Rudolph and Andy Walken

Live TV musicals are still uncommon enough to qualify as events when they happen, even when the show itself may not always feel like one.

With a rollicking revival of Grease and now with Sunday's ambitious musical retelling of the beloved ’80s movie classic A Christmas Story, Fox has again raised the bar for this genre with a technically impressive production that meshes seamlessly from soundstage to backlot, with swirling camerawork creating a stimulating new Hollywood and TV language for Broadway pizzazz. Fox really went all out with this Christmas Story Live!—although maybe it shouldn't have.

The modest charms of this adaptation shone through only occasionally when bloated to three hours—almost twice the length of the original—making even this unapologetic show-tune enthusiast squirm at times, feeling like the kid brother who couldn't face yet another plate of meatloaf. The show is an early effort by red-hot songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who in the last year earned a Tony for the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen and an Oscar for the lyrics of La La Land. Their serviceable Christmas Story score is more agreeable than memorable, and throughout there was a sense that we were watching a major production of a minor musical.

My heart sank very early on during the prelude, a generic pop Christmas anthem written for Bebe Rexha, cavorting in what felt like a Gap ad—or, more accurately, Old Navy, which was a key sponsor (and showed up in punny signage on a small-town Indiana storefront). Thankfully, she settled herself in front of a TV for the actual show to begin, which was a considerable improvement. (The less said the better about the live commercial inserted midway through for The Greatest Showman, the upcoming feature-film musical starring Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, with music by Pasek and Paul. A noisy flash-mob extravaganza that filled the Warner Bros. studio street sets, it felt more frenetic than joyful.)

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Back to the show ... In one of his more enjoyable performances in ages, Matthew Broderick provided sheepishly droll (if over-ample) narration to Jean Shepherd's enduringly nostalgic tale. Acting something like an avuncular onscreen Stage Manager, he observed and at times interacted with the characters, especially little Ralphie Parker (11-year-old discovery Andy Walken, a dead ringer for the movie's indelible Peter Billingsley), who wants nothing more for Christmas than a Red Ryder BB gun despite everyone's warnings that "You'll shoot your eye out." (Which naturally becomes a musical meme.)

Ralphie's most avid and concerned critic is his June Cleaver-ish mother, warmly played by Maya Rudolph, who unlike most of the cast underplayed her musical moments and rewarded us with the score's most moving song, "Just Like That," comforting Ralphie during one of his many moments of pre-adolescent trauma. This Christmas Story's happiest achievement was as a triumph of casting, including some very talented children and, within the Parker household, a blustery "Old Man" dad given unexpected gusto by comic character actor Chris Diamantopoulos, and Tyler Wladis as adorable kid brother Randy. (Who didn't chuckle when mom sent him off to school in a suffocating and immobilizing winter coat?)

Episodic in structure, the show gave splashy set pieces to featured players, most notably Jane Krakowski as Ralphie's alluring teacher, transformed in a fantasy sequence into a tap-dancing flapper, and Ana Gasteyer as a pal's Jewish mother, brashly belting the praises of Hanukkah. These production numbers were fun, reminiscent of classic comedy-variety from The Carol Burnett Show era, though ultimately exhausting when it pulled focus from the Parkers too frequently.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the most memorable of these big moments celebrated the Old Man's rapture over winning a "Major Award" in the shape of an infamously tacky table lamp shaped like a woman's leg. A giddy Diamantopoulus executes a brilliant costume change—how they pulled it off was revealed in the closing credits—as the set transforms from the family home to a glitzy awards stage populated by a kickline of chorines in lamp costumes.

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The movie's most famous moments were duly if unevenly enacted, including the iconic moment of Ralphie's buddy getting his tongue stuck to an icy flagpole on a dare and Ralphie finally fighting back against the local schoolyard bully, and as the show droned on, it became clear this wasn't likely to supplant the movie in our memories or replace it as a Christmas TV tradition. Still, I believe in these made-for-TV musicals and find it refreshing that a network would take a risk on a property that isn't as well known as Sound of Music-style chestnuts.

We might not have been able to sing along, but those who knew the movie could at least play along, and if this holiday gift might have been better off presented in a smaller package, I went to bed Sunday much like Ralphie and his brother after that hectic Christmas day: overstuffed yet glad for the experience.