Packed too densely with needless smarm and excess songs, “A Christmas Story Live!” stretched itself to three precisely executed but tedious hours Sunday night — including gobs of commercials, one of which was a live song-and-dance commercial for Twentieth Century Fox’s new musical film “The Greatest Showman,” which reeked instantly of box-office desperation and enforced synergy.
Other commercials (Old Navy’s, in particular) were so full of song-and-dance nonsense that it made the experience of watching “A Christmas Story Live!” seem that much longer. At one point I wondered whether Fox would stretch things out to 24 hours in length, the way TBS likes to air the 1983 version of “A Christmas Story” for 24 straight hours on Dec. 24 and 25.
The “Live” version was at times impressively and hyperactively staged — always in motion, with the cast breathlessly but heroically keeping up with cameras on wheels. Matthew Broderick starred as the adult Ralph Parker, narrating the story and moving through the sets unseen by the other characters — he’s in the living room, he’s in the kitchen, he’s on the recess playground (Creepy!), and he sees you when you’re sleeping. It made for an awkward start, but by about 15 or 20 minutes in, a viewer was grateful for his presence, as he seemed to be the only force for forward momentum.
Otherwise, the cast would have sung long and loud about every last thing that appears in “A Christmas Story.” The younger Ralph (played by a very capable kid named Andy Walken) sang and sang and sang about his desire to get a BB gun from Santa. His teacher, Miss Shields (Jane Krakowski of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), turned the admonition to the dangers of shooting one’s eye out into a whole “Guys and Dolls” job, surrounded by children in gangster suits and flapper beads.
And Chris Diamantopoulos (of “Silicon Valley” and “Good Girls Revolt”) soon commandeered the show as Ralph’s lovably temperamental father, particularly with an extended number exulting in his surprise contest win of a lamp shaped like a sexy leg in fishnet stockings. Here, Diamantopoulos ran away with the night, as the number segued into a kick line of chorus girls dressed as lamps. Anything calling itself “A Christmas Story” would naturally have to be about the leg lamp.
But by the same measure, who says “A Christmas Story” really needed a song about filling out crossword puzzles? About being a wimpy kid? About a writing assignment? About housework? About a department store and its cranky Santa? About children worried about their parents’ arguments?
The knowledge that they were watching a musical didn’t stop disappointed viewers from venting on Twitter about all this bursting-into-song, while defensive fans of musical theater angrily retorted that this musical has actual bona fides (its composer and lyricist are the same guys — Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — who went on to write the recent Tony-winning “Dear Evan Hansen”) and that people who don’t like musicals are just hopeless rubes.
I like musicals, and I’ve even enjoyed some of the recent efforts to make live television events out of them (NBC’s “The Wiz” and Fox’s “Grease” both come to mind), but “A Christmas Story Live!” had a too-gooey center and a phony sense of seasonal exuberance. The music and direction added a cutesy layer that undermined the genuine sweetness that already existed in “A Christmas Story” as well as its rougher, less-sentimental edges. This might have been a better opportunity to try to entice the finicky American attention span with a comedic play — words only.
Still, no permanent harm done; the musical didn’t commit any outright heresies against the original film, which over the years has become a firm part of pop culture’s Christmas canon, alongside “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
More importantly, this production dealt with some lingering aspects that the more woke among us would refer to as “problematic” when watching the movie on our endless annual loops. Ralph Parker’s small-town Indiana and the Christmas of 19-whenever features just the sort of glazed sentimentality that gets some folks on a “Make America Great Again” diatribe, imagining that life was so much better when Dad worked and Mom didn’t and minorities were all but invisible — or pulling shifts in Chinese restaurants on Dec. 25 while mispronouncing their L’s and R’s.
When all was said and done and the Bumpus dogs had made off with the Parkers’ Christmas turkey, “A Christmas Story Live!” followed the family to the town’s Chinese restaurant, where Ken Jeong (“Community,” “Dr. Ken”), as the restaurant owner, introduced them to Peking duck and also to his many sons — all home from college and gathered to wait tables and sing “Deck the Halls” a cappella and in perfect diction.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Diamantopoulos’s Parker observed.
“What were you expecting?” Jeong’s character replied, with a serious glare.
And this was where “A Christmas Story Live!” finally found its voice as a modern work. Even Broderick seemed to get choked up as he delivered his closing monologue. The production successfully made room for all Americans, with inclusive bonhomie — sprinkling Ralphie’s world with nonwhites and even giving Ralphie’s best friend, Schwartz, and his family a whole What Is Hanukkah? number.
I’m sure some will go on an anti-PC trip about it, but “A Christmas Story Live!” proved that anything can be dragged kicking and screaming (or dancing and singing) into the 21st century. Christmas present may come with a lot of bells and too many whistles, but it always beats the moping and yearning for Christmases past — the happiness and perfection of which were always fiction anyhow.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Krakowski’s character. She was Miss Shields, not Miss Fields.