PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Christmas Story; Rifling Through Holiday Memories

By Harry Haun
20 Nov 2012

Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Wisely perhaps, the tunesmiths declined to name their favorite number. "All of them are kinda like our babies," Pasek said, prompting Paul to jump in: "Whether or not they're our favorite song or the best song in the show, I think we're proudest of the mother songs that we worked into the show ["Just Like That" and "What a Mother Does"] just because she's not really a fleshed-out character in the movie so much. When we came on, we felt there's a little character there that's trying to get out."

Pasek then ran with it: " . . . and to do what musical theatre does best, which is get in the mind of somebody and give you their inner thoughts, so that was really fun."

The very-much-in-charge mother went from Melinda Dillon in a frazzled contemporary wig in the film to Erin Dilly in a domestic blonde 'do on stage. "Here's the thing about Melinda Dillon," said Dilly. "What I took shamelessly from her is a woman who's the heart of the family, with a very sly, ironic sense of humor that comes out when it needs to. She's the glue. She holds that family together.

And her two songs by Pasek and Paul underline that quality. "Those little boys — I call them little boys because they're significantly younger than me — have wisdom beyond their years. They have such passion and connection to this art form. This is the very beginning for them. I can't wait for the world to catch up with them."

A Tony-nominated "Truly Scrumptious" from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dilly finds herself "riding shotgun" again, tooling around the stage in a vintage car. "This one doesn't fly and gets a flat, but there's a lot of love in it. I do miss my little flying car — I'm not going to lie — but, for the 1940s, this is a pretty nice jalopy."

Norman Maine only brooded in the shadows about his actress-wife's success, but Dilly's actor-hubby, Steven R. Buntrock came on crutches. "I was cleaning the gutters right before Hurricane Sandy hit, and I fell two stories from my house," he said. "That was three weeks ago. This is my first step to get back on board — to go to my wife's show." (She couldn't dispense with the press fast enough and get to him.)

John Bolton with Pete
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Director David Esbjornson was doing his Norman Maine off to the side, while his Significant Other took to the spotlight and question. "Elizabeth Hope Clancy, my partner, did the clothing for the show," he explained. His next, he said, is the tour to Australia of his last Broadway show, Driving Miss Daisy, with Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines. "Angela's doing the part that Vanessa did, but everybody else is the same. We rehearse in Sydney, we open in Brisbane, and then we go Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. We're all looking forward to Australia."

Bolton-from-the-blue, he could be called — finally commanding the star spot as the hapless head of this household. His usual showbiz savvy surfaces on cue, and he socks his two big numbers, "The Genius on Cleveland Street" and "A Major Award." Contrary to W. C. Field's edict, he seems to thrive working with children and animals.

In fact, he covered for the two mangy hounds who harass his character throughout the show and eventually make off with the Thanksgiving turkey. On opening night, one forgot to show up for work and the other got lost in the chase — until Bolton waved a drumstick at him. They've never done that before, said the wife of their trainer, William Berloni. And, yes, the dogs would be getting notes. (Berloni trained the original, and the current, Sandy, in Annie — and their understudies.)

"What I like about my character," said Bolton, "is that he's a little bit of me and a little bit of my father — and, I hope, a little bit of Darren McGavin, who was terrific in the movie. I love this role. I'm so proud that they have stuck with me. I did it at Kansas City Rep a few years ago, then in Seattle and on tour last year — and, when they said they were going to do it on Broadway, I was bracing myself a little bit for 'You'd better be ready, John. They're going to get someone who was on a TV show in the '80s.' I braced myself for that, so I'm very grateful to them for hanging on to me."

Irony of ironies: the producers did reach out to a star of '80s TV and gave him top-billing over Bolton — Dan Lauria, who played the penny-pinching pop of "The Wonder Years" — but they don't compete. Lauria's is the older, reflective Ralphie, recalling his comic childhood, having grown up into Jean Shepherd.