Review: ‘A Christmas Story Live!’ Wasn’t Lively Enough

Posted December 18, 2017 2:56 p.m. EST
Updated December 18, 2017 3:00 p.m. EST

Judging by last year’s “Grease” telecast and this year’s “A Christmas Story,” the Fox network seems to like everything about live television except the “live” part. A game cast, lively score and sturdy source material made Fox’s big holiday spectacular “A Christmas Story Live!” a pleasant enough way to pass a mid-December Sunday evening. But the presentation throughout was a letdown — like getting pink bunny pajamas for Christmas instead of a Red Ryder BB gun.

Director Bob Clark’s original 1983 movie followed a winding path toward becoming a yuletide staple. Based on the radio monologuist Jean Shepherd’s stories of growing up in a small town outside Chicago in the 1930s, “A Christmas Story” disappeared from theaters quickly, only to find an audience on TV for its honest, funny take on how children process holiday stress.

One of the earliest works of “Dear Evan Hansen"/"La La Land” composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Tony-nominated stage musical version of “A Christmas Story” has been a regional theater favorite since debuting in 2009. Fox’s live broadcast (ably co-directed by Scott Ellis and Alex Rudzinski) smartly emphasized what sets the show apart from the film: big production numbers, putting across generally tuneful songs.

But while producing the musical live on the Warner Bros. studio back lot in Burbank, California, allowed for some impressively splashy moments — primarily anything spotlighting Broadway regulars Chris Diamantopoulos and Jane Krakowski — the staging made it look like a slightly shaggier version of a taped TV special. No one watching would have known this was a live production if not for the periodic cheers from an invisible audience and the occasional blown line.

Oddly enough, most of the stumbles came from stage vet Matthew Broderick, who played the narrator: an adult version of Shepherd’s stand-in Ralphie Parker, looking back on growing up with his gruff father (Diamantopoulos) and overprotective mother (an ingratiating Maya Rudolph). While he huffed and puffed a bit early on, Broderick’s folksy charisma made up for his surprisingly frequent gaffes.

Andy Walken was a fine version of the young Ralphie, even if his primary asset was his resemblance to the film’s bespectacled star, Peter Billingsley. Like the movie, Fox’s musical (only slightly modified from the stage) followed an episodic structure, framing one child’s holiday misadventures around his efforts to convince his parents to buy him an air rifle for Christmas.

Krakowski had one of the telecast’s highlights, playing Ralphie’s teacher, donning a spangly dress to sing the warning, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.” Diamantopoulos matched her in his showstopper, celebrating the Parker family patriarch winning “A Major Award”: a lamp shaped like a sexy woman’s leg.

The choreography of the “A Christmas Story Live!” quick-changes — some of which were seen briefly over the closing credits — were astonishing. And Broderick’s Shepherd-esque descriptions of how youngsters see department store Santas and parental punishments were as humorously poetic in the musical as in the movie.

But there was a certain crackle missing throughout the three-hour show. Aside from Diamantopoulos and Rudolph sweetly covering for her stumbling over a line, “A Christmas Story Live!” lacked the feeling of a piece of theater unfolding in front of the audience’s eyes in real time, like a slick magic trick.

No one should ever complain about a holiday present with this much thought behind it. Still, this version of Shepherd’s “Story” is unlikely to be on TV 24 hours a day in Christmases to come.