A Christmas Story was a movie, but history recalls it as a TV phenomenon. Out of the corner of your eye, playing on one of Ted Turner’s cable networks, it almost looked like a typical family sitcom: the overbearing dad, the long-suffering wife, one son old enough to be precocious, the other young enough to be a sight gag. Released in the early ’80s, set in that historical millisecond between the Great Depression and World War II, the film found its moment in the ’90s. Little Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) dreams of a [deep breath] Official Red Ryder Carbine Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, a wholly sincere Christmas wish whose sheer advertisement-copy specificity sounds as sarcastic as 1991 but never as snarky as 1997. The film meanders like a Richard Linklater film, seems to be inventing whole decades of Holiday-comedy subgenre in a fleet 93 minutes: There’s a bad Santa, a tall-short bully duo enacting a Wet Bandits origin story, the great Melinda Dillon in her own private eons-early Bad Moms Christmas. Set at the very dawn of the idea of America as a consumerist culture, it captures an essential contemporary Christmas mood, anxious and excited, exhausted as a mom and serene as a sleeping baby, every kid drunk on advertisements (be sure to drink your Ovaltine!) promising escape from the drudgery your older self has already grown into.
I would never accuse A Christmas Story of having a “point.” It’s too clever for that. “Back in those days, your parents didn’t say ‘I love you’ very often,” was how Matthew Broderick began the long speech near the end of Fox’s three-hour A Christmas Story Live!, the content of which speech ultimately landed on the profound explicit assertion that parents did love their children after all. I cringed a bit, but the whole musical was like that. Any subtle moment got blown out to glam showstopperhood, and the camera close-ups caught neo-Ralphie Andy Walken singing like he had murder in his eyes, and at long last we found out what Schwartz’s mom is like.
The TV version was adapted directly from the stage musical, which I’ve not seen yet nor ever. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are on their way to an EGOT after La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, and I guess the hot idea they had with A Christmas Story was to turn every line of dialogue from the movie into a whole song. I can see how this could work in a live performance, as a raucous get-you-clapping extravaganza. That seems to lend itself to the ecstatic style of the modern live musicals, which includes Fox’s own wonderful Grease, and last year’s pretty okay Hairspray on NBC.
But the same aesthetic felt plastic when applied to this least plastic of holiday tales. So much of the bigness felt like a distraction: away from Ralphie’s tale, and maybe away from the basic (very difficult!) realities of employing child performers for a three-hour live musical event. You felt like there wasn’t a center to this thing. The first performance was Bebe Rexha, who I swear I’ve heard of, singing us through what looked like the set of a GAP commercial. Cleverly unembedded signage later confirmed that we were actually watching an extended Old Navy commercial, but whatever baby, Disney’s stealing the parent company and us orphan broadcast networks gotta eat. There was also a Greatest Showman live trailer commercial, with not nearly enough Zefron frankly. And Broderick’s regular appearance as the onscreen narrator felt constant yet absent, like an awards-show host who can’t read the room.
The kids were very fun — what am I, Satan? — and the best sequence in the show occurred somewhere in the tenth hour, with the child ensemble dancing on a snowy street in their pajamas. The sheer impossibility of performing precise choreography on snow gave the whole number a charmingly rough edge. The adults cast had plenty of song-and-dance experts. Their precision was more impressive and less soulful. As the frowning father, Chris Diamantopoulos was a little too obviously a handsome fit fortysomething dude playacting suburban desperation. I preferred Maya Rudolph as Ralphie’s mom. While some of the other performances leaned broad, she invested the material with casual humanity. There was an early number with the dad imagining himself on a game show, the punchline of which involved Rudolph hitting a pot with the gusto of Will Ferrell hitting a cowbell, my biggest laugh of the night. Later, in what sounded like a deliriously unscripted moment, she told Diamantopoulous to “Put that Purkey down,” purkey so clearly a mishap line reading of “turkey,” and the two actors turned it into an extra comedy beat.
And speaking of purkey, how about that dog? Somewhere in the fifteenth hour of the marathon, a dog ran into the house and grabbed a turkey off the table in its jaws. This was the most incredible moment of the night — we saw three times if you count the exterior shot from the credits, and I could have watched it more — and it speaks to the sheer impressive scale of A Christmas Story Live! Jane Krakowski had a dance number, Ana Gasteyer taught Ralphie about Hanukkah, Fred Armisen was an elf and ruined everything briefly like he always does. Like Grease Live!, the musical was often filmed with a swirling camera shooting in a wide-angle lens, which gave the interior of Ralphie’s home a Hype Williams-y fisheye quality. The look wasn’t too appealing, but the you-are-there-in-HD perspective encouraged you to admire how meticulously the sets had been designed to resemble what the ’40s would’ve looked like if nobody ever invented gray.
There was one single moment toward the end when the whole family sat on the couch, little brother playing with a rocket ship, Mom and Dad sharing a private laugh: You wanted more of that. Or more, maybe, of the Chinese restaurant. Their Christmas feast demolished by an insanely talented dog performer who should win an Emmy, the family visited the only local establishment open on December 25th. Ken Jeong played the restaurateur, and he introduced a group of waiters caroling. This was the part of the original movie that featured a song so indefensible that even the Family Guy Wiki has a chastising entry about it. In this version, the waiters just sang “Deck the Halls,” and Jeong explained that all the singers went to an Ivy League school. “Isn’t this a great country?” Jeong said, asking a question that was also a pointed response.
This was a Moment worth tweeting about. Did it feel a little shameless that it wasn’t more — a way of box-checking away the most obvious retrograde part of A Christmas Story while otherwise printing the legend with brighter-happier-louder hashtaggy excess? But the show had to get to the big number to close out hour 22. I heard the line “What a Christmas Story to Behold/A Crazy Christmas Story to be Told” and then there was Broderick concluding that the real Christmas Story was love. If this live musical craze continues, can I request a follow-up from this same creative team? I see Broderick as inquisitor-pressman Thompson, singing a closing tune rife with poetic ambiguity: “Yes, Citizen Kane, He Sure Is Dead/Citizen Kane’s Rosebud Is, boom boom, a Sled!” B-