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Musical version of 'A Christmas Story' provides pleasant diversion at Hippodrome

The national touring production of the musical version of the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story" provides pleasant diversion at the Hippodrome.

Those who anticipate Christmas and its promised mounds of presents as if it were the most important, incredible, life-changing day of the year — or those who can still remember being that young and innocent — should find it worthwhile visiting the Hippodrome Theatre this weekend. That's where "A Christmas Story," the musical version of the 1983 sleeper film, offers a light and diverting trip through nostalgia land.

Like many a movie-turned-stage-musical, this one tries so hard to recreate the original that you may end up wondering why you didn't just drag out your old VHS copy or contact Netflix instead.

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The familiar scenes are all there — the double-dare-ya escalation that leads to an unfortunate collision of tongue and flag pole; pesky dogs invading a kitchen; the sweet, if now terribly non-PC, Chinese restaurant scene; and, of course, the hideous leg-shaped lamp, which even gets its own production number.

Above all, there's the official Red Ryder carbine action BB gun, the No. 1 item on a Christmas wish list of Ralphie, a 9-year-old Indiana boy in 1940. Never mind that everyone, including an intimidating, flask-toting department store Santa, warns him: "You'll shoot your eye out."

That gun is the pivotal element in the whole story, which was created out of the partly autobiographical writings of the late humorist Jean Shepherd. As in the film, that tale is told in the musical via flashback by a narrator representing Shepherd, played in thoroughly engaging fashion by Chris Carsten.

Since "A Christmas Story" is a quiltwork of vignettes, the narration is essential to hold things together. Carsten keeps it sounding fresh and vital, even intimate. He makes you believe in what Ralphie believed as a kid; makes you feel there's still a reason to hold onto such faith and hope; makes you remember that things like love and family really do count as much as grown-ups tell you they will.

Given how simple the heart of the matter is here, the addition of a song-and-dance layer doesn't really add all that much. But it does help that music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who have become a hot property since this show's Broadway premiere in 2012. They're the songwriters for the current Broadway hit "Dear Evan Hansen" and the new, buzz-producing movie musical "La La Land."

In "A Christmas Story," Pasek and Paul don't reveal a knack for producing a genuine ear worm, but they know where and how to use songs to keen theatrical effect. And if they borrow a couple of times — who in the theater world doesn't nowadays? — some Stephen Sondheim techniques, they do so with finesse.

In the droll fantasy sequence "Ralphie to the Rescue," when our wee hero imagines himself in the Old West using his Red Ryder rifle to save threatened souls, the score (orchestrated by Larry Banks) opens up colorfully. It sounds like a wink-wink nod to Aaron Copland's Western-theme ballets.

Speaking of fantasy sequences, there may be a couple too many in "A Christmas Story." The one featuring Ralphie's classmates and their teacher in 1930s-style outfits and a whole lot of tap-dancing feels much more like padding than plot-enhancing. But it's a good occasion for soloist Lucas Marinetto to show off impressive foot work.

In the end, the strength of this musical is that of the movie: old-fashioned sentiment relayed without sentimentality. This non-union touring production, directed by Matt Lenz, conveys that sentiment effectively. (Not all the performers convey the words, though — on opening night, the young folk in ensemble numbers could have been singing in Martian for all I could tell.)

Austin Molinaro does supple work as Ralphie (alternating in the role with Myles Moore). Arick Brooks hits the spot as Ralphie's food-challenged brother.

Christopher Swan gives a vibrant, funny and nuanced performance as the boys' father. He's not much of a singer, but he gets the music across.

Although some of acting is generic, Susannah Jones persuades as the mother. And she's a first-rate vocalist with a real gift for phrasing; she makes "Just Like That," a beguiling ballad about the fleeting nature of childhood, the musical highlight of the show.

Jones and Swan connect with particular flair in a short, lovely scene where the parents try to apologize to each other in fragmented sentences that, taken together, add up to "I'm sorry." Such moments help give "A Christmas Story" its welcome charm.

If you go

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"A Christmas Story: The Musical" runs through Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $42-$147. Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.

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