The cast of “A Christmas Story: The Musical” (courtesy of MTKC Pro)
After more than a year and a half of virtual theater productions and intimate, socially distanced performances, it is a bit of a shock to the system to find oneself back in a packed auditorium, watching a cast of more than 30 actors sing and dance their hearts out. For those craving the return to big, blockbuster theater, MTKC Pro’s production of A Christmas Story is a fun bit of large-scale, lighthearted holiday spectacle.
The show is anchored by Marshall Rimann as the narrator, who is at once the grown version of young protagonist Ralphie reminiscing on his childhood as well as radio personality and A Christmas Story creator Jean Shepherd. Rimann seemed to struggle a bit with his overwhelming line load but still managed to effectively drive the play forward and command the audience’s attention from the jump, despite some not inconsequential obstacles.
The space MTKC Pro occupies inside of the Shawnee B&B movie theater is an excitingly unique performance arena. It comes with large, well-maintained facilities and ample space for the show’s large cast and full on-stage orchestra, and the company makes great use of the movie screen, projecting backdrops and creative representative imagery in a way that doesn’t distract, but enhances the overall aesthetic.
But mounting a live play inside a movie theater comes with its own set of challenges—namely, that a lot of people will treat it like a movie theater. In addition to more talking and phone checking than you might expect at a typical live show, there were also an incredible amount of latecomers seating themselves throughout the opening scenes. Rimann, with a commandingly soothing Garrison Keillor-esque radio voice, managed to hold the audience’s attention through the disruption, even with a lighting design that inexplicably kept him in half-darkness every time he left his narrator’s stool in those early scenes.
Those sorts of kinks worked themselves out before long and the play soon settled into a delightful rhythm. The musical is, for the most part, a scene-for-scene recreation of the 1983 movie, following the young Ralphie as he pines after his ultimate dream Christmas present: a Red Ryder BB Gun.
The play follows the film so closely that the songs are at times wonderfully amusing and at other times, totally superfluous. (They also serve to add a considerable amount to the movie’s short runtime and things begin to feel a bit tiresome toward the end of the second half.) It brought to mind a quote from the legendary Stephen Sondheim, who once said “A song has to be necessary to telling the story. If you can take the song out and it doesn’t leave a hole, then the song is not necessary.”
If you believe this is true, then this sort of musical, which is an adaptation of an already existing and entirely effective property, poses an innate problem. None of these songs are necessary to tell the story because the story already exists without them. The most they can really be is an added bit of fun and fortunately, the songs of A Christmas Story: The Musical are that. It also helps that the cast presenting them is an immensely talented one.
Ralphie is played by Kamryn Hendersen, a fifth-grade student from Blue Springs with an incredible set of pipes, as well as a strong stage presence and loads of charm. Henderson is already set to star as the title role in Oliver at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theater next month and he is, for sure, a young actor to watch in Kansas City’s theater scene.
In fact, the young talent on display in this production is incredible across the board. MTKC Pro managed to compile an ensemble of more than a dozen young (elementary and middle school-aged) triple threats—or possibly quadruple threats if you count their comedic skills in addition to the traditional acting, singing, and dancing. That’s not to undercut the great talent of the adult cast, but to be so charmed by a group of children is a fantastic thing.
In all honesty, it’s possible that it’s just been a very long time since I’ve seen an ensemble this large perform live on stage—and it seems important to note that in addition to having the largest cast and audience I’ve seen at a theater in recent years, MTKC and the B&B theater also do not have any COVID-19 restrictions in place—but even so, the result is a marvelous experience.
“A Christmas Story: The Musical,” a production of MTKC Pro, runs through December 19 at B&B Live, 16301 Midland Dr, Shawnee, KS. For more information, visit mtkc.org.