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Music's In The Air With 'Christmas Story' And 'Camelot'

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BOSTON — Two musicals have hit Boston, just in time for the holidays. “A Christmas Story, The Musical,” based on the Jean Shepherd story, is at the Wang Theatre while “Camelot” takes up residence at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. Forgive me for playing Scrooge, but while both have their pleasures, neither is a pure success.

If you want to revisit a classic movie in a new medium or if you want to entertain your kids, this is the show for you. If you are looking for a well-crafted piece of theater, well, “A Christmas Story” (through Dec. 8) is missing its lug nuts.

Everyone’s favorite scenes are present and accounted for, and Jake Lucas makes a compelling Ralphie. But the story gains little in its adaptation for stage. The exception is Dan Lauria, immediately endearing in his role as the narrator [Shepherd], reflecting on an antic-ridden Christmas of his youth during the Depression.

But the bodily presence of the narrator often leaves “A Christmas Story” struggling to fill up time and space. When Lauria is on stage to deliver his epic tale, the story going on in the background is often not worth watching. Erin Dilly, playing Mother, is principally concerned with setting the table and getting socks on her younger son, Randy (Noah Baird). And while Scut Farcus and the gang seem larger than life on the screen, the children of the cast get lost on the stage at times except when they cuss and dance, and they do plenty of both to good effect.

The Benj Pasek-Justin Paul songs created for the show are unmemorable, but the dancing is good (Warren Carlyle is the choreographer). A very small boy billed as the Mobster Tap Speciality, David Scott Purdy, excites the audience like no other in the scene he shares with Miss Shields (Caroline O’Connor). Miss Shields, in addition to being Ralphie’s teacher at Harding Elementary School, is the torch singer vamp of his daydreams. O’Connor has played both Edith Piaf and Judy Garland. By bringing out the tipsy, prurient dimensions of Miss Shields, she delivers the strongest performance of the supporting cast. The Old Man (John Bolton) leads a chorus line bearing leg lamps in a number called “The Genius on Cleveland Street” with plenty of innuendo and a little twerking.

The quality of dancing from the child ensemble and the well-timed wisecracks of Dilly and Bolton keep the show rolling, even when the musical numbers feel tedious. But by dividing the show’s focus between its narrator and Ralphie, “A Christmas Story” also divides its audience’s allegiance. It’s almost impossible to feel Ralphie’s fear, longing, and joy when you know he’s going to grow up just fine, into the hale and hearty Dan Lauria who is bellowing right in front of you.

“A Christmas Story” is cute. It doesn’t seem as if it will become Boston’s answer to the Rockettes. One well-molded leg is not enough to make a holiday spectacular.

Erica Spyres as Guenevere and Benamin Evett as King Arthur in "Camelot" at the New Repertory Theatre. (Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures
Erica Spyres as Guenevere and Benamin Evett as King Arthur in "Camelot" at the New Repertory Theatre. (Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

A world away, “Camelot” at the New Repertory Theatre is a pleasant surprise. This revival of the Lerner and Loewe classic musical does a lot with a little. Whether that’s enough depends upon your attitudes regarding small theater and dicey sound. But crackling acting, inventive sets, and a strong ensemble prove that “Camelot,” like Arthur says of Merlyn, “doesn’t age, but youthens” with the right production, and the New Rep may be onto something good. The king’s observation that knights are only able to slaughter peasants because the poorfolk lack armor speaks to today’s political and economic climate.

Erica Spyres, who plays Guenevere, is a strong soprano and a whip with phrasing. Benjamin Evett, while not known for his singing, holds his own as Arthur. His chemistry with Spyres is winning and his character is a kaleidoscope, shifting from a timid would-be husband to a legendary king under the influence of his beloved. In his performance of “How to Handle a Woman,” he sees that Guenevere will be his undoing. If the technical delivery of the song is lacking, Evett’s poignancy makes up the difference. The subtle transformations of his Arthur captivate for the duration.

Here's a sampling of the music:

“Old” doesn’t always mean better, however, and the show struggles under some flaws of the book. The first act runs long, thanks to a number of solos. In the second act, Guenevere, having fulfilled the prophecy and fallen for Lancelot (Marc Koeck), loses all of her flirtatious wit, and her comings and goings feel perfunctory.

But there are fine moments, too: Koeck’s rendition of “If Ever I Would Leave You” is stunning, allowing him to display a power not found earlier in the often gracious and milquetoast Lancelot. The ensemble, which is remarkable throughout, gets its best choreography in “Fie on Goodness” and rouses the audience before a strong finish.

The downfall of the show is its sound design. Only one spot at the front of the stage seemed to guarantee good audibility. One of the joys of seeing musicals in midsize theaters is the cleaner sound they can produce as opposed to large halls like the Wang. It is unfortunate that opening night at the New Rep sounded muddy. If speakers and mics get rearranged for the rest of the run (through Dec. 22), this will be a satisfying revival. I hope they do. In the great blue motion of shows this holiday season “Camelot” sparkles.

Holly Van Leuven is a writer, publisher and musical theater historian in Boston. Her first book, the biography of song-and-dance man and Dorchester native Ray Bolger, is forthcoming.

This program aired on November 28, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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