Photo: A Christmas Story Live! (Fox)

Whenever I sit down to watch one of these now-traditional live musicals, I have a moment where I remember that they’re both more awkward and more endearing than I remember them being. And A Christmas Story Live! is no exception. There are things to love and things to hate about tonight’s three-hour broadcast. But if you’re the kind of person who wants to kick off the holiday season by watching an adorable, bespectacled boy belt his fucking face off, then Fox doesn’t disappoint.

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All in all, I would say A Christmas Story Live! is a pretty good production of a so-so musical. The original Christmas Story barely has enough story to sustain a 90-minute movie, let alone a three-hour musical. And around Maya Rudolph’s lovely rendition of “Just Like That,” I started checking my watch in disbelief that we still had an hour of show left. If A Christmas Story Live! had been half as long, it would’ve sailed by on Christmas charm. But at three hours, it kind of felt like the Christmas parable that would never end. Though the music is written by Broadway’s golden team of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen), the score never really rises above feeling like a passably generic theme park musical. Still, anything that lets Jane Krakowski sing and dance in sequins and character shoes on network TV is alright in my book.

If I had to sum up this live broadcast in one word it would be “frenetic.” The production seemed afraid that the audience would change the channel at the first sign of stillness, so neither the camera nor the performers stopped moving for virtually the entire three-hour show. A Christmas Story Live! maintains the 360-degree, real-world aesthetic Fox pioneered with Grease: Live. The downside of the show’s realistic setting is that none of the musical theater choreography looks as clean on a snow-covered lawn as it would on a stage. On the other hand, it’s impressive to see just how much this production is able to do during a live broadcast. That includes a whole bunch of fantasy sequences that unfold on a truly impressive scale, most notably the over-the-top ode to the iconic leg lamp in “A Major Award.” In fact, these shows have become so overproduced they almost don’t feel live (which raises the question of why do them live at all, but that’s a quandary for another day).

Unlike previous live musicals that relied on big name celebrities, the source material itself is the draw of A Christmas Story Live! (The poster for The Sound Of Music Live! was Carrie Underwood’s face, the poster for A Christmas Story Live! is the leg lamp.) There’s not much stunt casting to speak of, although there are plenty of familiar faces in the bunch. The whole child cast is suitably adorable, including Andy Walken as Ralphie. And as Ralphie’s mom and dad, Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos carry the show through even its roughest moments. Rudolph in particular walks away with the standout performance of the evening, even if her vocals left a little something to be desired.

The only performance I’m a bit torn on is Matthew Broderick as the musical’s narrator, adult Ralphie. On the one hand, he’s a completely natural fit for the role and no one does direct-to-camera narration like Broderick. On the other hand, he felt a tad under-rehearsed. None his timing worked quite as well as it should have and another week of rehearsals could’ve done wonders for both his performance and the show as a whole. There’s also the fact that the production’s relatively realistic aesthetic kind of made it feel like Broderick was a creepy man stalking a nice suburban family. That being said, his “taking it all in” acting moment at the end of the show was almost enough to make me forgive all of his earlier weaknesses. I’m nothing if not a sucker for musical theater schmaltz.

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Photo: A Christmas Story Live! (Fox)

In a clear effort to drive me crazy, these live musicals still staunchly refuse to make the simplest fix possible: Film their dialogue scenes in front of a live audience like an SNL skit. Musicals are written to be performed in front of a crowd and the rhythms of the comedy exist in relation to that audience’s laughter. Without it, the jokes just don’t land the way they’re supposed to and that’s as big a problem for A Christmas Story Live! as it was for The Sound Of Music, Peter Pan, Grease, and Hairspray before it.

What does set A Christmas Story Live! apart from its predecessors is that it’s the first of these live musicals that’s explicitly holiday-themed (well, technically The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again was timed to Halloween but the less said about that the better). And little Christmas charm goes a long way towards papering over the show’s many glaring weaknesses. Plus there were at least a handful of moments of heart within the show that did land powerfully, especially Mother’s sweet ballad “Just Like That” and Ralphie and Randy’s duet “Before The Old Man Comes Home.”

If I’m being totally honest, the appeal of A Christmas Story has always been a bit lost on me. There’s just not much depth to the story of Ralpie’s childhood desire for a gun-filled Christmas, but maybe that’s the point. A Christmas Story isn’t meant to challenge, it’s meant to comfort. And as reheated holiday leftovers, A Christmas Story Live! just about hits the spot.

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Stray observations

  • Like Grease Live!, this production starts with a bubbly pop performance (Bebe Rexha singing “Count On Christmas”) to ease us into the live musical aesthetic. It’s a bit more out of place for this 1940s-set musical than it was for Grease.
  • I’m still waiting for someone to make the definitive movie about cutthroat musical theater child actors.
  • Maya Rudolph messing up her line about turkey was maybe the most endearing part of the entire broadcast.
  • My favorite production number was Ana Gasteyer’s Hannukah song, which was added specifically for this broadcast.
  • Though Jane Krakowski and Ana Gasteyer at least get a song apiece, Ken Jeong, Fred Armisen, and David Alan Grier are on hand to do virtually nothing.
  • That being said, I’m glad the show managed to avoid any hackneyed accent jokes during the Chinese restaurant scene. Maybe Hollywood really is learning.
  • The Greatest Showman “live commercial” seemed to be missing half its music, but kudos to Hugh Jackman for catching that hat.

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