'A Christmas Story Live!' was well done, but won't replace the movie in our hearts

Ken Tucker
·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

Everybody on camera during A Christmas Story Live! on Sunday night did a fine job — sometimes a superb job (looking at you, Ana Gasteyer and Jane Krakowski). But the people behind this TV version of the Broadway musical version of the beloved 1983 movie (which was based on the now less-well-known prose work of the great radio humorist Jean Shepherd) too often did not trust the musical-theater elements that make these live-TV stunts interesting and, at best, exciting.

Fox pre-empted its entire primetime lineup for this three-hour production, which told the story of bespectacled Ralphie Parker (Andy Walken), a kid in 1940 Indiana who wants more than anything else for Christmas a Red Ryder BB gun. His parents, played by Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos, are too busy and distracted to register their son’s desire. Dad is obsessed with entering contests to prove himself a winner in life; Mom is too involved in keeping the household humming along. Dad wins a garish lamp in the form of a woman’s fishnet-stockinged leg and is immensely proud; Mom is horrified by its vulgarity. One of Ralphie’s buddies, Flick (JJ Batteast), gets his tongue stuck on a flagpole on a freezing winter day. When you start to compile what goes on in A Christmas Story, you realize it has very little in the way of a coherent narrative; it lurches from one comic vignette to another. It worked fine for Shepherd: the book from which A Christmas Story was adapted — 1966’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cashwas a collection of loosely connected semi-autobiographical short stories. Credit for the ongoing success of this material must be given to Bob Clark, who helped adapt and directed the 1983 film that gave shape to Shepherd’s rambling storytelling style, and emphasized the details that are now so revered by audiences that watch the movie repeatedly on TV every Christmas season.

The live version, directed by Scott Ellis and Alex Rudzinski with a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, had a few standout moments. Diamantopoulos did a fine job of singing and dancing through “A Major Award;” Jane Krakowski — as Ralphie’s teacher, Miss Shields — tap-danced her way into our hearts, and Ana Gasteyer wowed ’em with “Market for a Miracle,” a showstopper especially written for the TV event.

But the cameras never stopped moving, swooping in and around the actors and distracting us when what we really wanted was a clear view of legs dancing and mouths singing. Matthew Broderick not only narrated the story but also stood beside the action throughout the proceedings — he was supposed to be the grownup Ralphie, unseen by the other characters — and that means he’s really Jean Shepherd himself, who narrated the movie. He was all too well seen by us, though. Look, I love what Broderick is best known for — his puckish sense of humor and quiet intelligence. But that’s not what was needed here. Polite and patrician, Broderick was too mannerly to be the Shepherd narrative voice, which needs a burly growliness. (On Broadway, that quality was provided by The Wonder Years dad, Dan Luria, as the narrator.) A Christmas Story Live! was solid, but it lacked the kind of emotional resonance that makes people want to see the movie over and over.

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