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Thursday, November 21, 2019

‘A Christmas Story’ at Toby’s Takes You Back

As you are aware, the moment we pass Labor Day we are on a fast track to the Christmas season. The charming A Christmas Story, The Musical, now playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, ushers in the final leg of this race to the magical date. #hocoarts

A Christmas Story, however, is as much about nostalgia as it is about Christmas. Sure, there is the hilarious Santa scene in a department store complete with elves and eager kids plopping on Santa’s lap to share their hopes for presents. Yes, the story centers on a nine year-old boy longing for a particular Christmas gift as if his life depended on it. And, for good measure, there is the final scene at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve where the waitress sings a Christmas carol.

Yet, through dialogue and lyrics contained in the musical, the picture of a simpler time, not necessarily better, but definitely simpler, comes across loud and clear from the action that takes place in Hohman, Indiana during December 1940.  The central family of the show—the Parkers—is traditional by those standards with the patriarchal father, a stay-at-home mother and two small kids.

Venerable messages like don’t run while holding scissors; never use a cuss word; a BB gun will shoot your eye out; the notorious triple-dog-dare is the ultimate attempt to coerce someone to do something involuntarily; and teachers imploring students to mind their punctuation, conjugation and stay within the margins flow throughout the story.

This wonderfully staged, well-cast and fast-paced production under the meticulous direction of Shawn Kettering and choreographed so ably by Mark Minnick and Tina Marie Desimone is a sparkling snow globe full of enchantment, sweetness, eye-watering humor, pleasing songs and an abundance of talent to make your Christmas season bright.  It couldn’t come at a better time.

Toby’s spared no expense in providing a plethora of props and sizable set pieces to create the atmosphere of Christmas season in 1940 Indiana. David A. Hopkins, who designed the superbly effective lighting sequences, created a lovely set with lit painted panels on the upper walls of the theater depicting neighborhood houses in the winter and assorted Christmas lights and other decorations to augment the ambiance.

Under Mr. Kettering’s direction, the cast members efficiently moved these set pieces, such as living room furniture, school classroom desks and even a car to seamlessly effect scene changes. Despite the cozy nature of Toby’s in-the-round stage, this production played large utilizing all available space including the upper level where the Parker kids’ bedroom is located.

Adding to the technical success of the production, Mark Smedley’s sound design is crystal clear, and A.T. Jones designed perfectly classic period costumes. Nathan Scavilla conducted the able six-piece orchestra directed by Ross Scott Rawlings.

Based on the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, the musical adaptation, which premiered on Broadway in 2012, earned several Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Circle nominations.  The duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul crafted the music and lyrics, and the book was penned by Joseph Robinette based on the writings of radio humorist Jean Shepherd as well as the film.

The story of young Ralphie Parker’s determined quest to receive the only gift he wants—an official Red Ryder BB gun—is as endearing as it is comical. This zany saga is packed with mishaps, disappointments, and fulfillment throughout. 

You have this tawdry lady’s leg lamp that was won by Ralphie’s father (The Old Man, played by Jeffrey Shankle) in a contest, which he is so proud and protecting of but Ralphie’s Mother (Heather Beck) deplores.  You have bullies, who if they push the right buttons, can be beaten up themselves. There are flying lug nuts and a wayward cuss word that results in a bar of soap snack.  You have neighbors’ hounds running amok through the Parkers’ yard and house and devouring their Christmas turkey. 

"...a sparkling snow globe full of enchantment...to make your Christmas season bright."
There is a cranky and increasingly intoxicated Santa (Russell Sunday) who frightens the children more than giving them Christmas joy.  A down-to-earth teacher (Jessica Bennett) breaks out of character to perform a stunning dance number in a glitzy red gown. You have a tongue freezing on a flagpole incident resulting from the dreaded triple-dog-dare.   

Regardless of who Ralphie encounters to lobby for this special rifle, whether it is his mother; his old man, his teacher Miss Shields, even Santa, Ralphie is told one thing: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

David Bosley-Reynolds does a truly splendid job as the now deep voice of Jean Shepherd, narrating the often hilarious story in the first person as a grown-up Ralphie with an onstage, non-intrusive presence throughout the production.  He recalls and shares the younger Ralphie’s thoughts as the boy navigates through each caper. His closing soliloquy about love is touching. This is a terrific device and makes the show click.

As the central character, bespectacled Ralphie, played by Evan Christy for the performance this production was reviewed, performs proficiently with his acting and comedic skills, timing very strong vocals and dancing.  He is particularly adept in one of the show’s highlight production numbers, the frenetic “Ralphie to the Rescue!” whereby he imagines he’s a cowboy using his rifle to thwart bank robbers and assorted other scoundrels.

The remainder of his family unit is also appealing exuding its Midwestern charm.  Jeffrey Shankle as The Old Man is spot-on and delivers an outstanding performance as he always does in Toby’s productions.  The father is strict with his children and cursing is verboten (except when he does it).  A hardworking man who exasperatingly receives bills on a daily basis and struggles with the house’s furnace and his Olds, he found a degree of satisfaction and solace in winning that lady’s leg lamp.  Gruff as he may be at times, you still root for him, thanks to the performance of Mr. Shankle.

His best songs are “The Genius on Cleveland Street,” a duet with Heather Beck and “A Major Award,” a phenomenal dance number that evolves into a clever can-can with he and the ensemble dancing with lady legs lamps.   

Heather Beck as Ralphie’s sweet mother is the perfect counterpoint for her husband.  She is the sensible one of the two and protective of her children.  Ms. Beck’s rendition of “What a Mother Does” is moving with her gorgeous voice in typically great form.

For this performance, Sonny Huza adorably plays Ralphie’s timid younger brother Randy who is averse to eating unless he mimics a pig at a trough.   He, too, performs admirably in several of the dance sequences.

Jessica Bennett in the role of the teacher Miss Shields shines, and other youngsters in the ensemble are flawless tap dancers in “You’ll Shoot You’re Eyes Out.”  

About those kids. The young performers who appeared in this production are outstanding and offer a glimpse into their potential in musical theatre.  I have no doubt that the alternative bunch will be as skillful. One of the numbers in which they excel is the one I can identify with most, “When You’re a Wimp.”

A special shout-out goes to Jack Patterson who plays the town bully Scut Farkas for his acting abilities and stage presence. But he also shines as a solid tap dancer in that “You’ll Shoot Your Eyes Out” number earning thunderous applause from the audience.  His future in musical theatre, should he pursue it, looks very bright.

Other members of the talented cast and ensemble for this performance include: Nia Savoy, Justin Calhoun, Coby Kay Callahan, Sylvern Groomes, Jr., A.J. Whittenberger, David James, Gavin Lapasone, Cato Huza, Sadie Herman, Mira Cohen, Samaira Hammond, Katherine Ford, Cooper Trump, Santina Maiolatesi, Patricia Targete and Morganne Chu.

Those not in this reviewed performance include: John Poncy, Jezrael Agbor, Patrick Ford, Erin Cobbler, Jaxon Keller, Carly Greaver, Jonathan Mackrell, Sophia Manicone and James LaManna.

A Christmas Story, The Musical is a production that runs on all cylinders.  It has all the elements needed to bring holiday cheer and pure enjoyment and a nostalgic glimpse into the past with its talented cast and crew under masterful direction.  

So the question you may ask, what’s so great about a show about a kid desiring a BB-gun for Christmas?  The answer: everything.  Tickets to this show would make an even better Christmas present without the risk of shooting your eye out.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

A Christmas Story, The Musical runs through January 5 at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

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