NEW YORK — This Christmas, Ralphie can skip the air rifle and poke his eye out with jazz hands.
A musical stage version of the classic film "A Christmas Story" has begun a five-city tour with hopes that it might stick around a little longer, like a tongue on a frozen flagpole.
"We're hoping it's not too bumpy of a ride on the road, but it's a good birthing process and it's going OK so far," said lyricist Benj Pasek in an interview from Detroit, where "A Christmas Story, The Musical" is playing until Nov. 27.
The show has more than a dozen catchy songs written by Pasek with composer Justin Paul — titles include "Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun" and "A Major Award" — and a book by Joseph Robinette.
Both the film and musical are based on writer and radio-TV personality Jean Shepherd's semiautobiographical story of 9-year-old Ralphie Parker's desperate attempt to land an air rifle as a Christmas gift, despite warnings from everyone that he'll shoot his eye out.
After Detroit, the show moves to the Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, N.C., from Nov. 29-Dec. 4; the Straz Center in Tampa, Fla., from Dec. 6-Dec. 11; and The Chicago Theatre in Chicago over Christmas, from Dec. 14-30.
The musical is true to the 1983 movie, featuring a menacing school bully, an annoying kid brother, an eccentric father, a lace-stocking-clad leg lamp, soap-in-the-mouth punishment and a kid who gets his tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole.
The film was a modest theatrical success, but over the years has become a cult favorite, eventually joining "A Christmas Carol," ''It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street" as a Christmas classic. The phrase "You'll shoot your eye out!" has become as synonymous with the Christmas season as Scrooge's "Bah, humbug!"
A rough early version of the show debuted in Kansas City in 2009 and then last year in Seattle. It has since been overhauled with the addition of Pasek and Paul, two up-and-coming 26-year-olds who met at The University of Michigan, a new director in John Rando ("Urinetown, The Musical") and a new choreographer in Warren Carlyle ("Finian's Rainbow").
Pasek and Paul, the youngest winners of the Jonathan Larson Grant whose current projects include musical adaptations of Roald Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach" and "Dogfight," faced a challenge when they came on board to be both true to the movie and to say something new.
"If we took every single funny or classic or iconic moment from the movie and put it into a song, I think it would probably fall flat or people would probably frankly get sick of it," said Paul. "So it was tough call in terms of what should be in a song, what should be in a scene, what can we do away with. Otherwise, we're going to have a four-hour long show."
The show has gotten a huge dose of credibility from none other than the original Ralphie, Peter Billingsley, who has signed on as a producer. He said he is very protective of the film and never considered extending its brand until now.
"When I first heard it, I thought, 'Wow. That really could make a lot of sense,'" said Billingsley, who has been executive producer of movies such as 2008's "Iron Man" and "Four Christmases," and director of 2009's "Couples Retreat."
"It was a real logical fit. Ralphie was kind of a dreamer to begin with. There are a lot of fantasy sequences in the movie from a format standpoint that could really lend itself well to the stage."
Producers hope the musical — starring Clarke Hallum as Ralphie and John Bolton as The Old Man — will build a following that triggers another national tour or maybe a stint in a major city.
Pasek and Paul would love to see the show end up in their new home, New York. They think it might fit perfectly in a place where the Christmas musical based on the film "Elf" was a success, the offbeat "The Book of Mormon" proves unstoppable and a parody musical based on a book and film, "The Silence of the Lambs," has turned into an off-Broadway hit.
"I do think that there is more of an appetite for the unconventional and things that push the boundaries of what you expect when you sit down in a theater," said Pasek. "What I think is really good about this show — and a lot of it has to do with the source material — is that it sort of is able to straddle the traditional, musical family-friendly world as well as being a little bit subversive and odd and quirky."
Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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