See if you can get your head around this one: Kansas City Repertory Theatre is on Broadway. Or at least its name is.
Monday night marked a historic milestone for the company when “A Christmas Story: The Musical” opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in the heart of the New York theater district.
The show, in somewhat different form, received its world premiere at the Rep in 2009. Artistic director Eric Rosen, who staged the original production and later staged it again at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, admitted that it felt good to take his seat Monday night and see KC Rep’s name on the title page of the program.
Indeed, every theatergoer who attends “A Christmas Story” through Dec. 30 will see these words: “World premiere produced by Kansas City Repertory Theatre.”
“So it was really exciting,” Rosen said the next morning. “We never had a show open on Broadway before. It’s cool to walk in and see the set we designed up there. All the same designers are still on it, and seeing John Bolton, who was in it in Kansas City, was great.”
Bolton, a veteran Broadway performer, plays the Old Man. He’s the only actor in the original Kansas City production who has stayed in the show all the way through. Directing the Broadway version fell to John Rando, perhaps best known for staging “Urinetown.”
Rando also directed a touring production of “A Christmas Story” that played five cities during the 2011 holiday season.
“A Christmas Story” needs no introduction, other than a reminder that it’s based on the 1983 Bob Clark nostalgic movie about a kid who wants a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas. The movie was adapted from the writings of humorist Jean Shepherd.
Traditionally critics “butcher” whatever the limited-run holiday Broadway show happens to be, Rosen said. So he and others involved in “A Christmas Story” were pleasantly surprised by the mainly positive reviews that began to appear early last week. He said the show would probably have to tour and perhaps return to Broadway for a number of years before investors could start to break even. The reviews will help.
“It could have gotten us killed and that would have hurt in its efforts to tour,” he said. He called the reviews “totally amazing. I’m not sure any of us were expecting it.”
“Every year at this time Broadway producers are seized with the urge to pick parents’ pockets with splashy holiday fare aimed at young audiences,” Christopher Isherwood wrote in the New York Times. “ ‘A Christmas Story’ wins points for being less glitzy and more soft-spoken than the garish, overbearing musical versions of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ and ‘Elf.’ ”
Isherwood also praised songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who were brought into the project after the Kansas City premiere.
“Mr. Pasek and Mr. Paul have provided a likable, perky score that duly translates all of the major episodes in the story into appropriate musical numbers,” Isherwood wrote.
Mark Kennedy of The Associated Press was unreserved in his enthusiasm. The show, he wrote, “manages to not only do the film justice, it tops it. The show is a charming triumph of imagination that director John Rando has infused with utter joy.”
Tanner Stransky of Entertainment Weekly was less effusive: “The stage adaptation plays like a heart-tugging, best-of version of the movie, with a saccharine score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a book by Joseph Robinette that desperately panders for laughs. Considering the audience for the show — folks who loved the movie during their childhood and are now foisting it upon their children — it’s not a surprising strategy.”
Meanwhile, David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter praised the show’s emotional depth: “More than being a musicalized carbon copy of the movie, this is a gentle paean to a lost era, reflected in the bonds of a lower middle-class family with bills to pay and a tricky furnace in the basement.”
Kansas City-spawned shows have reached New York before.
Richard Carrothers and Dennis Hennessy produced “Groucho: A Life in Revue,” which ran for almost six months off-Broadway in 1986 and ’87. Rosen and Matt Sax took their hip-hop musical “Clay” from Kansas City to a limited off-Broadway run in Rosen’s first season at the Rep.
Last year the Coterie Theatre took its production of the musical “Lucky Duck” to the New Victory Theatre. And the New Victory also played host to the touring production of “Tom Sawyer,” which the Rep co-produced.
A formal announcement is expected, perhaps soon, that the Public Theatre will present “Venice,” the hip-hop musical epic written by Rosen and Sax that also received its world premiere at the Rep.
“If you think about the number of people who have seen ‘Christmas Story’ since Kansas City, probably a couple of hundred thousand people have seen it and seen our name on it,” Rosen said. “In just five years we’ve gone from no New York presence to four shows in New York.”