Encore Theatre's “A Christmas Story: The Musical" sings the praises of the classic film

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The scene from A Christmas Story where the excited dad pulls the leg lamp out of the shipping box as the family looks on in confusion.

The musical version of A Christmas Story has a dogged loyalty to the 1983 movie’s script—but with good reason since it's a charming and funny childhood tale. Photo courtesy of Encore Theatre.

A stage musical based on a beloved film classic—like, say, A Christmas Story: The Musical, now being staged at Dexter’s Encore Theatre—can be a double-edged sword. 

Yes, it’s a known commodity, so people will often line up to see it without too much coaxing, but the show’s creators must delicately thread the needle of staying true enough to the original material to satisfy fans, while also providing enough surprises and new elements to remake the story in a new medium.

If anything, the musical adaptation of A Christmas Story—with a book by Joseph Robinette, and music and lyrics by University of Michigan alums Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (before they won Tonys for Dear Evan Hansen)—errs slightly on the side of dogged loyalty to the 1983 movie’s script, straining to check every classic-moment box. 

Yet the reason Story has so many such boxes is because it is a funny, charmingly rendered, nostalgic slice of American childhood, set in a small Indiana town in 1940. 

Drawn from radio stories told by humorist Jean Shepherd in the 1950s, Story focuses on the pre-Christmas trials and tribulations of 9-year-old Ralphie Parker (Gavin Cooney), who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun. The problem is, he can’t convince his parents (David Moan and Jessica Grové), his teacher (Alley Ellis), or even a department store Santa (Mitchell Hardy) that if he gets one, he won’t “shoot his eye out.”

But Ralphie keeps scheming while also dealing with bullies, theme papers, and a gruff father who’s chasing his own form of validation. 

First, let’s address the baby elephant in the room:

Jeff Daniels' “Pickleball” serves up intense characters and a faulty narrative

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Jonathan West and Kate Thomsen in Pickleball at The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Jonathan West and Kate Thomsen star in The Purple Rose Theatre Company's production of Jeff Daniels' Pickleball. Photo courtesy of The Purple Rose Theatre Company.

When I was 8, I performed at a dance recital with my tap classmates. As the girls around me on stage made a few mistakes, I glared at them (according to my amused parents), furious that they were ruining my moment.

This oft-repeated family story came back to me while watching Jeff Daniels’ Pickleball, now having its world premiere at The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.

Why?

Because the five absurdly intense, competitive adult characters in the play ultimately seemed like variations of my 8-year-old self, which is a bit problematic. But we’ll get to that shortly.

The musical "Hands on a Hardbody" explores class empathy, big personalities, and personal connections

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Actors Alexander Hernandez and Leah Gittlen stand side by side with one hand each placed on a red truck inin Penny Seat Theatre's production of Hards on a Hardbody

Alexander Hernandez as Jesus and Leah Gittlen as Heather in Penny Seats Theatre's production of Hands on a Hardbody. Photo courtesy of Penny Seats Theatre.

Some narrative setups just prove too irresistible to pass up.

In the case of the musical Hands on a Hardbodya group of down-on-their-luck Texans gather at a car dealership for the chance to win a new red Nissan pickup truck. To win, they must stand for days on end with one hand touching the vehicle at all times, and they each have their own motivations for committing to this grueling exercise—which means, of course, everyone has a unique story to tell.

Think of it as A Chorus Line for economically struggling Southerners.

This boiled-down assessment, as it happens, additionally hints at some of the inherent challenges of the show: how to toe the line delicately between caricatures and big personalities; between blue state talking points and red state realities; and between appropriation and a heart’s-in-the-right-place effort at inclusion.

But the play vacillates in its ability to pull off this delicate balance, and its structure makes the musical a series of character sketches more than a cohesive dramatic story arc with high stakes. 

Yes, each person has his/her reasons for wanting the truck so badly, but in the end, we know everyone will probably be OK if they lose this contest, too.

Inspired by a 1997 documentary of the same name, and now being staged by Penny Seats Theatre in Ann Arbor's Burns Park, the two-and-a-half-hour Hands on a Hardbody premiered on Broadway in 2013 and features a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) and music by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green.

Let's Go Boo: Ben Mathis-Lilley’s witty "The Hot Seat" looks at U-M's 2021 football season from a fan's perspective

WRITTEN WORD REVIEW

Ben Mathis-Lilley and his book The Hot Seat: A Year of Outrage, Pride, and Occasional Games of College Football

Ben Mathis-Lilley author photo by Christopher Beattie.

One of my favorite parts of Slate senior writer (and rabid longtime Michigan fan) Ben Mathis-Lilley’s new book, The Hot Seat: A Year of Outrage, Pride, and Occasional Games of College Football is a list of fan site comments during U-M’s second game of the 2021 season.

After noting that U-M beat Washington 31-10 that night and that the Wolverines were never, for a second, tied with or losing to the Huskies, Mathis-Lilley shares three and a half pages of these in-the-moment fan perspectives. A few cheery examples: “We’re going to get killed by any offense with a pulse.” “Passing game is atrocious.” “We are not good.”

Of course it’s possible to spot a team’s flaws even when they win, but the pronounced Debbie Downer-ness of this running commentary, shared while a convincing Michigan win on national television is unfolding, makes you wonder: What more could Michigan football fans want? Good lord, would anything make us happy?

An Ode for the Anthem: Mark Clague’s “O Say Can You Hear? A Cultural Biography of the Star-Spangled Banner”

WRITTEN WORD REVIEW

Mark Clague and his book “O Say Can You Hear? A Cultural Biography of The Star Spangled Banner”

It seemed a little on the nose to be reading U-M associate professor Mark Clague’s new book, O Say Can You Hear? A Cultural Biography of the Star-Spangled Banner, on the 4th of July—at U-M’s Camp Michigania, no less—but that’s nonetheless when and where I absorbed enough national anthem-themed information to sweep an entire Jeopardy! category.

Indeed, to say Clague is thorough in his research would be a gross understatement.

Wherever You Are: Geoff Sobelle’s experimental theater piece explores what it means to be "Home"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Full stage of actors on stage in a production of Home

Photo courtesy of UMS

Among the many, many things that have changed over the last two years is our sense of “home.” 

While traditionally associated with comfort and family and love, our homes became claustrophobic prisons of a kind during the pandemic as we holed up to protect ourselves and each other; and though home provided many of us with some semblance of safety, we were nonetheless terrified of being with others and of this dangerous thing that was out in the world that we didn’t yet understand.

So although the UMS presentation of Geoff Sobelle’s Home—a genre-defying hybrid of theater, dance, and interactive performance art that often has the feel of a live silent film—had been originally scheduled for April 2020, seeing it instead this past weekend during its two-day run at the Power Center inevitably meant the audience watched it with COVID-era eyes.

That’s not to say we collectively arrived at the venue with a jaundiced, wary perception filter firmly in place. But for many of us, the abstract idea of “home” as an emotional palette has expanded to include some darker hues, right alongside the more conventionally bright, cozy, warm ones.

Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over” is a Black Lives Matter-era translation of Exodus and "Waiting for Godot"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Dan Johnson and Justin Montgomery in Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu, directed by Casaundra Freeman at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Sean Carter Photography.

Dan Johnson and Justin Montgomery in Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu, directed by Casaundra Freeman at Theatre NOVA. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

The time is ripe for Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, now on stage at Theatre Nova.

The play was the show that officially reopened Broadway last August; we’re fast approaching the holiday of the same name, which commemorates the Jews’ emancipation from slavery in Egypt; and given the reignited culture wars of this mid-term election year—fueled in part by debate about critical race theory—Nwandu’s powerful reimagining of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, with two young Black men in the lead roles, feels like the theatrical version of lightning in a bottle.

Pass Over (run time 80 minutes) focuses Moses (Justin Montgomery) and Kitch (Dan Johnson), who live a hardscrabble Groundhog Day-like existence on a heavily policed city block. They regularly perform rituals like a secret handshake; Moses says “Kill me now” when he wakes up each morning, and Kitch replies, “Bang bang”; and they each name wished-for items on their “Promised Land Top Ten” lists.

But even as the men speak and dream of escape—using language so rife with curses and the n-word that it soon feels more centered on sound and music than meaning—they’re not going anywhere; and a streetlight pole that looms like Vladimir and Estragon’s tree, in this new context, haunts the play’s action with the ominous suggestion of lynching. Building on this idea, a cartoonishly obsequious, lost, “golly gee” white man (Kevin O’Callaghan) enters the scene, wearing a light-colored suit and carrying a picnic basket full of food for his mother; and a racist, violent white cop called Ossifer (also played by O’Callaghan) appears now and then to keep Moses and Kitch in their place, both literally and figuratively.

Penny Seats Theatre Company's "The Actors" is a comedic and emotional look at processing parental loss

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Penny Seats Theatre Company's The Actors

Early in Ronnie Larsen’s play The Actors—staged by the Penny Seats Theatre Company at the Stone Chalet Event Center in Ann Arbor—a character says, “Theater’s weird. Families are weird.”

Ronnie, the comedic drama’s main character (who notably shares the playwright’s name, and is affectingly played by Brandy Joe Plambeck), voices this idea while explaining why he’s looking to hire a man and a woman to spend a few hours a week in his apartment, playing the roles of his deceased parents. He's lonely and has decided to use his inheritance money to hire actors that might make him feel cared for and connected again. Ronnie provides a family history and specific, remembered scenes for the actors to play out, inviting them to improvise.

Inevitably, though, things go hilariously off-the-rails, as the boundaries between reality and pretend get increasingly fuzzy. Ronnie’s stand-in father Clarence (Robert Schorr) and mother Jean (Diane Hill) develop an attraction for each other; Clarence moves in, after being kicked out of his real home; and Jean’s real grown son (David Collins) inserts himself as Ronnie’s pretend older brother Jay, which makes the real Jay’s (Jeffrey Miller) unannounced visit all the more painfully awkward. But Jay’s arrival also brings new information to light that throws Ronnie’s family memories, and motives, into question.

Touching From a Distance: “A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter” explores emotional connections between strangers

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Two women touch hands with a pane of glass between them while sitting at a table in 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter

After months of isolation and “Zoom socializing,” many of us are probably feeling pretty rusty when it comes to face-to-face conversations with strangers—which seems a raison d’etre of 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter, presented by the Ann Arbor Summer Festival and the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

This intimate, interactive theater experience positions you and a stranger across from each other at a table, with a glass partition between you, in an empty room at UMMA. You take turns reading from a stack of cards—a black arrow indicates which of you the card is for—and you read aloud from it, or follow instructions like, “Imagine what keeps this person up at night,” or “wink with each eye,” or “with your partner, make a box with your hands against the glass.”

This Woman's Work: UMSTMD's "Nora" explores Ibsen's "A Doll's House" through three different eras

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Alyssa Melani, Ruby Sevcik, Ruby Pérez star in UMSMTD's Nora

Alyssa Melani, Ruby Sevcik, Ruby Pérez star as three generations of Nora in U-M's interpretation of Hendrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Photo courtesy of UMSTMD.

I felt guilty for stealing away, by myself, for a few hours on Sunday to see U-M’s Department of Theatre and Drama production of Stef Smith’s Nora: A Doll’s House, leaving my kids and spouse to fend for themselves.

Fittingly, this discomfort points to Nora’s raison d’être: no matter how much we want to believe otherwise, a woman’s role in the domestic sphere really hasn’t changed that much over the past century.

Using Henrik Ibsen’s classic 1879 play, A Doll’s House, as a blueprint, Smith retells the story of Nora—who scrambles to keep secret her method of keeping the family afloat during her husband’s past illness—as she would appear in three different time periods: 1918, 1968, and 2018.