Take the storyline of a classic holiday flick, add the music of a revolutionary Broadway musical, stir in the iconic dance moves of that musical smash, and sprinkle with the zaniness that has become the trademark of Troubadour Theater Company, and you have A Christmas Westside Story, possibly the most sensational Troubies show yet.

If you haven’t already guessed, the holiday classic in question is 1983’s A Christmas Story, and A Christmas Westside Story sticks close to its Jean Shepherd-scripted plot:  It’s the 1940s and nine-year-old Ralph “Ralphie” Parker (Matt Walker) wants but one thing for Christmas—a Red Ryder 200 Shot Range Model Air Rifle, however when he musters up the courage to make his Christmas wish known, the only response he gets is, “You’ll shoot your eye out”, particularly from his overprotective mother (Leah Sprecher). Meanwhile, Ralphie’s crotchety “Old Man” (Rick Batalla) complains incessantly about “that dagnabbit furnace” in a “tapestry of obscenities,” younger brother Randy (Beth Kennedy) gets so over-bundled for winter weather that he can’t get his arms down, and local bully Scut Farkus (Brandon Breault) and his pintsized henchman Toady (Christine Lakin) terrorize Ralphie, Randy, and Ralphie’s best buds Flick (Joseph Keane) and Schwartz (Robert Petrarca) to no end.

As its title suggests, A Christmas Westside Story takes as its musical inspiration Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, Walker and company finding nigh-on miraculous ways to mold each and every West Side Song to A Christmas Story’s plot twists and turns. “A Boy Like That” becomes “A Toy Like That” (“could shoot your eye out”). “One Hand, One Heart” is now “Two Hands, One Gun,” a boy’s love song to the BB gun of his dreams. “Maria” now soars with, “The most beautiful toy I’ve ever seen. Red Ryder 200 Shot Range Model Air Rifle.” (A lot of syllables to fit into Ma-ri-a’s three beats.) The “leg lamp” Ralphie’s dad wins comes to life to sing “I Feel Pretty” (“and I pity any lamp who isn’t me tonight”). “Cool”’s “boy, boy, crazy boy” is now “Triple Dog Dare me boy,” which any A Christmas Story fan will tell you is the dare to end all dares.

As described so far, A Christmas Westside Story may not seem all that different from recent Troubies Christmas offerings like “The First Jo-el,” “Frosty The Snow Manilow,” and “A Stevie Wonderful Life,” i.e., a much loved tale told through the music of a well-known singer and/or songwriter. However, as any musical theater aficionado well knows, there would be no West Side Story without Jerome Robbins’ revolutionary choreography, and for the first time ever, choreographic moves we already know and love are an integral part of a Troubies show.

Choreographer Molly Alvarez pays tribute to Robbins in astonishingly ingenious ways. A Christmas Westside Story opens with West Side Story’s classic finger snaps as the neighborhood kids greet each other, a la the Jets, with one Robbinsesque leap after another till the arrival of bad guy Farkus prompts a near rumble, interrupted here, not by a police officer’s whistle, but by schoolteacher Miss Shields (Lisa Valenzuela). West Side Story’s “Mambo” now gets danced by a dozen or so Christmas shoppers shouting out a syncopated “Christmas Shop.” (No matter that there’s an extra syllable.) “America”’s Puerto Rican foot stomps are now executed by neighborhood moms who sing out “He wants a Red Ryder BB Gun” to the tune of “Everything’s free in America.”

The plot is entirely A Christmas Story. The music and moves are all West Side Story. The wackiness is 100% Troubles.

Adlibs abound. On Opening Night, Walker chided Valenzuela, who was having trouble with Miss Shields’ blackboard-filling algebra problem, with a tongue-in-cheek “I thought you were going to have this memorized by tonight.” The Troubie head honcho later mock-admonished an audience member for looking at his program (“We’ve already started the show”) until realizing that the gentleman had a press packet. (No, it was not this reviewer.) Batalla, the Troubies’ premier adlibber, had special fun reacting to the destruction wrought by his lamp-smashing wife, leading to a cry of “This is my Ovation moment,” a tip of the hat to L.A. Stage Alliance voters who year after year favor the unorthodox Troubies over more traditional musical theater companies.

There’s also plenty of the scripted hilarity the Troubies are famous for. Take for instance when Ralphie’s BB gun turns human and we’re told, “He objectifies his gun the same way he’ll objectify women some day, unless he turns out gay. Jury’s still out.” Also, not to be forgotten are A Christmas Westside Story’s highly contemporary political and pop culture references. There are mentions of Michele Bachman and just about every politician recently caught in a sex scandal, and no less than Justin Bieber makes a brief cameo appearance.

None of the above would be possible without the talented phenoms who call themselves the Troubies, beginning with director/star Walker, who goes beyond his usual comedic brilliance to demonstrate considerable legitimate song-and-dance chops as a Tony-esque Ralphie. The one-of-a-kind Kennedy has a field day with Randy, the youngest, shortest character she’s ever played, whether spinning on her back like a dreidel or stuffing carrot sticks up her nose. Sprechter is a simply marvelous Mom and Valenzuela so terrific as Miss Shields that one wishes she had at the very least twice as much stage time. Katherine Malak as Red and Monica Schneider as Lampy are dance standouts as is a sensational finger-snapping Keane. Batalla is outrageously funny, particularly when climbing over unsuspecting audience members or going on an adlib jag. Breault and Lakin are a dynamic duo as Farkas and Toady, and each gets to deliver a very funny “The More You Know” PSA. Kristin D’Andrea Condon (Minnie, Weird Kid), Suzanne Jolie Narbonne (Ginny, First Elf), and Petrarca (Schwartz) complete the tiptop cast in absolutely splendid fashion.

And speaking of fashion, kudos go out to costume designer Naomi Yoshida for her colorfully imaginative garb. Mike Jesperson’s whimsical set design is ever so fortunate to be lit by lighting design genius Jeremy Pivnick. Robert Arturo Ramirez’s sound design is first rate. And I loved Sprecher’s big wig, a tribute to the anachronistic ’80s do Melinda Dillon wore in the movie.

Musically, A Christmas Westside Story benefits immeasurably from the contributions of musical director Eric Heinly and his onstage band (Heinly, Kevin Stewart, Linda Taylor, Brian Baker, and Cameron Graves), who manage to do justice to Bernstein with only a handful of instruments. Props go out too to vocal director Rachael Lawrence. Corey Womack is producer and stage manager.

A Christmas Westside Story is not only Troubadour Theater Company at its brilliant best, it may well be the Troubies best yet blend of story, song, dance, and humor. If Walker and company can find a way to combine Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s music and Michael Bennett’s dances with the plotline Shakespeare concocted for Coriolanus, (A) Chorusolinus might well be the ideal follow up. In the meantime, don’t miss the Troubies’ current holiday treat—that is, if you can somehow find a way to wangle a ticket to the sold-out hit.

Troubadour Theatre Company, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
December 9, 2011
Photos: Chelsea Sutton

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