Ralphie’s At It Again—On a Bigger Stage: A Christmas Story Comes to Madison Square Garden

Leg lamp, ice-stuck tongue and John Bolton as Dad

'A Christmas Carol.'

‘A Christmas Carol.’

W. C. Fields, who died on Christmas Day 1946 a humbugger to the end, would find what John Bolton does eight times per week at Madison Square Garden absolute torture.

Not only does Mr. Bolton have to work with kids and animals, it’s a whole posse of kids—one of whom craves a retina-wrecking BB gun for Christmas and another who, on a triple-dog-dare, gets his tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole. Then, there are the mangy bloodhounds that make off with the Christmas turkey. Yes, it’s that time of the year.

But one man’s poison is another man’s seventh heaven—or, in Mr. Bolton’s case, fifth heaven. “It’s my fifth Christmas with the show,” the actor beamed. “Christmas is Groundhog Day for me, but what a wonderful Groundhog Day it is!”

The show is, of course, A Christmas Story, the musical version of the ’83 film, which, having marinated on Turner TV for 30 years, is now Everybody’s Christmas Story—an abiding American classic.

Its stage facsimile spent three years on the road, perfecting its storytelling (even to the desperate extreme of switching scores in midstream), before finally lighting on Broadway last year at the Lunt-Fontanne for 51 performances. With spring came three Tony Award nominations—Best Musical, Best Book (Joseph Robinette) and Best Original Score (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul)—and now it’s back, in season and with a vengeance, opening Dec. 11 at a really big house: Madison Square Garden.

Mr. Bolton was a bit awed by the upgrade. It’s a big roost to rule, but blessed with the face (if not, he said, the salary) of a sitcom dad, he is managing to do it, ideally cast as the hapless head of a household in the throes of holiday hell. Jack Nicholson priced himself out of the role in the movie, but it fell fortuitously to an even better choice: Darren McGavin.

“I must have seen the movie 20 times and always loved it—that performance, in particular—but after I booked this show, I deliberately didn’t watch it. I didn’t want to imitate him. I just wanted to do my memory of his work and let myself into that.”

Director John Rando and choreographer Warren Carlyle cut Mr. Bolton a lot of slack in creating the character, allowing him to play with the part before editing him. He kicks up his heels in a chorus line of leggy lamps and romps around the house with his hounds, but his center is home and hearth.

“The family scenes are my favorite—that’s what the show’s all about. Erin Dilly, who plays my wife, and I are of the same DNA. We really ‘get’ each other, on stage and off, and I feel very safe—corny word but true—with her. And I always love the kids.”

Peter Billingsley, who was 12-playing-9 when he was the four-eyed, fat-cheeked Ralphie in the movie, has joined the platoon of producers behind this musical. “What works about the movie and the musical,” he said, “is that it’s a very familiar family. I have people come up who are younger, who say, ‘That’s my family.’ People much older say, ‘That’s my family.’ So it’s that sort of fun/dysfunction/but-a-lot-of-love situation, and everyone’s trying hard. All of the set pieces in the movie—trying to make a turkey, trying to go get a Christmas tree, that sort of thing—that’s the mundane of life that we all go through.”

These remembrances of Christmases past come from one man: the late humorist and radio personality Jean Shepherd, who set them down in a book of essays titled In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Because they are episodic, he did the voiceover narration for the film. For the musical, Dan Lauria does the honors as Mr. Shepherd.

A late-blooming Broadway actor, Mr. Lauria arrived with a perfectly cast one-two punch—first as Vince Lombardi, then as Mr. Shepherd. “They’re actually opposite characters,” he underlined. “To go from Lombardi, who had such energy, to the calmness of Jean Shepherd is quite a trip. Jean was such a mellow, easy-going storytelling, which is an art form that’s missing today. I think the only thing that comes close, perhaps, is Prairie Home Companion. Other than that, the raconteurs that I grew up with are all gone—maybe Orson Bean—but we’ve just lost that art.”

At the top of Ralphie’s Christmas wish list is a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun. He says it 28 times in the movie, and in the musical that mantra becomes the name of his first big “want song,” delivered by this year’s Ralphies, Jake Lucas/Eli Tokash. And the rejoinder he always gets when he verbalizes his wish is also a song title: “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” performed in a fantasy speakeasy sequence (not in the film) by Caroline O’Connor, who, prior to donning a torrid red dress, was Ralphie’s buttoned-down schoolmarm.

“It’s exhausting being a sex goddess,” sighed Ms. O’Connor. “Maybe you noticed I have some assistance in that number from little Luke Spring? That’s such a highlight for me. Every night, I just stand and watch him do extraordinary things with his feet—and it’s never the same twice. He doesn’t care. He just gets out there and does it.”

Li’l Luke, a tiny tornado of a tap dancer, made the lead of Charles Isherwood’s New York Times review and got standing ovations regularly during the Broadway run. He is the only returning moppet in the show this year. The others outgrew their roles and, like the deer in The Yearling, were replaced. “I think Luke is 11,” said Ms. O’Connor. “Ten,” corrected Mr. Lauria with finality. “I think he’s 22, going on 30,” cracked Ms. Dilly.

One of Ms. Dilly’s most prized memories from the Broadway run was when Neil Simon came to see the show. “He came backstage, and his face was wet with tears. He took my hand and said, ‘I was not expecting to be so moved. I felt like Ralphie as a little boy. I had such a strained relationship with my dad. This is such good storytelling, such a beautiful play.’ And I thought, ‘I could retire, just from that conversation with Neil Simon.’ ”

Mr. Lauria introduced Mr. Simon to the youngsters in the show. “I told the kids, ‘This is one of America’s greatest playwrights, and, if you stay in this business, there’s no way you will not be in one of his plays.’ And Neil Simon said, ‘Maybe the next one.’”

Prior to moving into Madison Square Garden on Dec. 11, A Christmas Story got its juices going with runs in Hartford and Boston. Songwriter Pasek found the Hartford opening especially moving. “We were sitting in the back of the theater, and a man in his mid 80s was right in front of me,” he recalled. “I was watching him, and he looked like a little boy watching the show, sort of reliving these childhood moments.

“Then, when I left the theater, there was maybe a 5-year-old boy who was trying to show his mother he could tap dance. Just seeing this 80-year-old man watching the show with such joy and then this little boy trying to tap dance, for me, was the most fulfilling thing. ”

A Christmas Story is not the first original holiday musical to play MSG. A Christmas Carol by Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent from, of course, Dickens’ 1843 novella logged up a full decade of Christmases there. Its inaugural year, 1994, utilized a cast of 75, plus four children’s choirs—a far cry from its nonmusical resurrection now at Theatre at St. Clement’s. It employs, feverishly, five actors.

Timothy Childs, who produced an even smaller version of A Christmas Carol four times on Broadway (Patrick Stewart’s one-man show), commissioned an adaptation from Patrick Barlow, who did that galloping, manic, vest-pocket stage version of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. The result is an endlessly inventive take on the traditional Christmas tale, full of wit, warmth, theatricality and out-of-the-box imagination.

“Tim [Childs] was quite keen to keep it a traditional view, and I tried, but it wasn’t easy, so I started to kinda open it up more and more and put in stuff that’s not in the book,” confessed Mr. Barlow, who found new ways of explaining Scrooge’s pathological parsimoniousness. “I did a lot of psychological family stuff that interested me, and when I started following that route, I could see the route all the way through it to the very end, where he meets his mother and she says, ‘I actually did love you,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, I assumed you didn’t because you died.’ That’s an assumption that many people make when they lose parents early. Fortunately, Tim and his co-producer, Rodger Hess, didn’t object to going that route—and, in fact, they now say, ‘Oh, great.’

“I’ve been lucky to have two creative, visual directors—Maria Aitken and, now, Joe Calarco—who see the words on a page and go, ‘I can do something wild with that.’”

Scrooge usually isn’t considered a light sentence, but Peter Bradbury, who plays the part here well, knows the work his whirling-dervish co-stars go through in the mad scramble to the finish line: “I can see their eyes rolling around inside their heads.”