At Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, ‘A Christmas Story’ gives the audience what it wants
By Mike Giuliano
Baltimore Sun Media|
Dec 05, 2019 | 12:00 PM
There is knowing audience laughter at Toby’s Dinner Theatre as the lights come up on a scene in which an ice-coated flagpole is just about the only prop onstage. A young character responding to the peer pressure challenge to place his tongue against that flagpole is about to learn a sticky life lesson.
Yes, this is a scene right out of the popular 1983 movie “A Christmas Story.” That memorable scene is conveyed here by a musical number, “Sticky Situation,” that’s just one of numerous evocative tunes in this 2011 musical theater version of “A Christmas Story.”
Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul give us an agreeable score that delivers plenty of holiday spirit without getting overly sentimental. Similarly, the musical’s book by Joseph Robinette gives us the best-loved scenes from the movie while maintaining a reasonably tight focus on young Ralphie’s obsessive quest to have his parents give him an air rifle for Christmas.
Judging from the many young theatergoers accompanied by their parents and grandparents at a recent performance, the plot that involves a single-item Christmas wish list is more than enough of a story line to keep us attentive. Sure, we all know how things will turn out on Christmas morning in Ralphie’s house, but it’s fun to get caught up in his nervous anticipation as he sings “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun.”
As you would expect from such a show, the young theatergoers in the audience are watching scenes that are fully populated by characters their own age. It’s nice to relate that the juvenile actors do a swell job with the singing, dancing and dialogue. The youthful ensemble leaves you in no doubt about their values when they sing “It All Comes Down to Christmas."
By way of childhood verisimilitude in this production, Ralphie (John Poncy at the reviewed performance) and younger brother Randy (Patrick Ford at the reviewed performance) convey an endearingly recognizable sense of sibling rivalry. Incidentally, the extensive double casting within an already-large cast means that quite a few budding talents will be getting valuable stage experience during the run of this show.
Just as adults are as likely as kids to enjoy this stage version of “A Christmas Story,” it’s worth noting that the Toby’s production also has some strong performances in the adult roles. David Bosley-Reynolds plays a character representing Jean Shepherd, whose 1966 book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” served as the basis for the 1983 movie.
Moving through the story as an affable narrator, this character walks and talks his way through his childhood in a small Indiana town in 1940. He is crucial in terms of helping to hold together anecdotal scenes that otherwise might become diffuse. Bosley-Reynolds guarantees that this authoritative and kindhearted narrator remains a tour guide we can trust.
The real standout performance among the adult roles is by the actor portraying Ralphie’s father. From a child’s perspective, it’s apt that the paternal figure is known as The Old Man (Jeffrey Shankle). What’s impressive about Shankle’s performance is that he manages to be both cranky and gentle as a father figure who is never at a loss for making know-it-all observations. Shankle also really delivers as a vocalist in “The Genius on Cleveland Street” and “A Major Award.”
Heather Marie Beck, playing the character known simply as Mother, also does some endearing singing of her own in the number “What a Mother Does.”
The Toby’s production is capably overseen by director Shawn Kettering, choreographers Tina Marie DeSimone and Mark Minnick, music director Ross Scott Rawlings and others. And, yes, the show includes a department store Santa Claus (Russell Sunday) who will be hearing from a lot of kids in the weeks ahead.