A Star is Born in “A Christmas Story”

by Kevin M. Thomas, @ReelKev
A star is born. Not Barbra Streisand or Judy Garland. Or, even way back to Janet Gaynor.
“A Christmas Story: The Musical” is playing at the SF Playhouse and I caught it when the understudy took on the lead role of Ralphie.
Oftentimes, people think the understudy won’t be as good as the person usually scheduled to play the part.  But young Mario Gianni Herrera, the understudy, got to go on during the performance I recently attended and he knocked my socks off with his amazing voice. This strong, confident big voice was coming out of this minor. I have no comparison to the actor who plays Ralphie on other performances. All I know is, Herrera will blow you away and not make you feel cheated that he is the understudy. In fact, I felt privileged that I was able to see him have his big moment and can’t picture anyone else in the role.
Besides his deserved praise, “A Christmas Story” is a terrific tale no matter what. Many are familiar with the movie about a young man whose only desire is to get a BB gun for Christmas. Mix in a father who won a godawful leg lamp and school antics that involve getting your tongue stick to a frozen flagpole and you have a heartwarming story for the whole family. It’s no wonder the 1983 film has become a Christmas classic. 
Then, 30 years after the movie, a Broadway musical was made. A version of that musical has found a home at the SF Playhouse and it ranks right up there with the many great productions that have been produced at the Playhouse. I have no idea where the Playhouse stores all of its set pieces, but the backstage area must be huge because they have so many sets in each production you might wonder how they make it work.  It could be chalked up to careful choreography and expert direction.

Seeing Herrera is worth the price of admission but the entire cast is excellent. Ryan Drummond and Abby Haug make great parents – almost like from a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Then there’s Katrina Lauren McGraw who plays the school teacher and a few other parts. Her hypnotic eyes are matched by her beautiful booming voice.
 While it’s truly a retro classic, there is something very current and fresh about the show: music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. If you don’t know who they are (shame on you!) but they are the team behind last year’s Oscar-winning film “La La Land” as well as this year’s Tony-winning Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” And, if that’s not enough, they did the songs for the upcoming film “The Greatest Showman.” These writers are current and relevant and it’s a great treat to catch one of their earlier productions.
“A Christmas Story” runs through January 13, 2018. Info at www.sfplayhouse.org.