Amid a plethora of Sugar Plum Fairies and Christmas Carols this holiday season, two local theater companies sprinkle a little spice into the sugary mix. BDT Stage has mounted a short run of A Christmas Story: The Musical, a show based on the hit movie. And the Aurora Fox, while still bringing Ebenezer Scrooge on board, is ringing with irreverent changes on the familiar story in Twist Your Dickens.
A Christmas Story, which came out in 1983, wasn’t a kids’ cartoon, a message film or a holiday rom-com, but rather a well-told, sweetly humorous story about Ralphie, a nerdy, bespectacled young boy who yearns for a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Also about Ralphie’s family: a little brother, a mother who embraces her conventional homemaker role, and a father struggling not to feel like a failure and expressing his frustration in alternately cursing and fantasizing about winning money. A Christmas Story: The Musical, which premiered in 2009, adds cheerful, cheeky songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
The kid dared by his friends to lick an icy pole who ends up getting his tongue stuck? The stern teacher and her rigid assignments? The father’s celebrated sweepstakes win that turns out to be an absurd piece of decorative junk? The Santa nasty enough to appear in David Sedaris’s Santaland Diaries? It’s all here. And if that’s not enough, the stage is also filled with irresistibly lively, dancing, singing youngsters, headed by Miles Shaw (alternating with Ned Swartz) as Ralphie and backed up by a small group of BDT’s best-loved professionals. Wayne Kennedy plays the adult Ralphie, adding a note of rueful irony and occasionally letting loose with a weirdly maniacal chuckle. Joanie Brosseau-Rubald, identified only as Mother (presumably because that’s how Ralphie sees her), gives a strong, empathetic performance. And for the first time in years, Scott Beyette has a role that lets him utterly cut loose — as Ralphie’s father, The Old Man.
A couple things could be cut altogether, however. Things have changed since the 1980s, a time when little boys could covet guns — or at least BB guns — without raising parental concern, and when a comic fantasy scene in which the gun-toting kid saves his classmates and teacher from a robber didn’t raise ugly memories of school shootings. And the scene in which the family eats Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant, where the proprietor sings “Deck the Halls” with the kind of fake Chinese accent in which “holly” becomes “horry,” really should go; it’s not enough that director Beyette has the man’s daughter pronounce the moment offensive.
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Twist Your Dickens is built on the spine of A Christmas Carol. We meet Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning, humbugging away, refusing to give alms for the poor and abusing his clerk, Bob Cratchit; there’s the usual ghostly sequence of former partner Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future. In between, though, are all kinds of skits and shenanigans, some hilarious, some mildly amusing, a few best forgotten. When the topic of orphans comes up, Little Orphan Annie pops on, Oliver Twist arrives, and you get the capering apparitions of Whoopi Goldberg and her fellow nuns from Sister Act. George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life makes an appearance or two. Contemporary references, from fracking to Robert Mueller, are always good for a laugh, as are interruptions from supposed audience members and some genuine actor-audience interactions. Periodically the script pulls us back to the original story, though always, as the title promises, with a twist: The saintly Cratchits, for example, have highly murderous intentions.
The exuberant eight-member cast gives the play plenty of comic energy, with particularly strong performances from Erik Sandvold as Scrooge and the always-elegant-no-matter-how-crazy-she’s-acting Jessica Austgen in several roles. Twist Your Dickens isn’t as funny as writers Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort may think it is, but it’s much funnier than most of what’s around this season.
A Christmas Story: The Musical, presented by BDT Stage through January 5, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, bdtstage.com.
Twist Your Dickens, presented by the Aurora Fox Arts Center through December 23, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, aurorafox.org.