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12/9/2010          A CHRISTMAS STORY             Theatrical Outfit          
 

THE MAJOR AWARD

I remember the first time I saw A Christmas Story, the 1983 cinematic sundae of a sweetly flavorful quintet of Jean Shepherd stories.  I had just turned thirty and was slipping into that awkward pre-middle-age epoch during which you’re too old to play with toys and too young to drool into a pleasant nostalgic wallow.  Adulthood weighed on my shoulders like an unwelcome bucket full of debt and unwelcome body-changes, making me question the wisdom of my extended bachelorhood (which would continue for another fifteen spouse-and-spawn-free years).  My sceptical nature had fully formed, and Christmastime filled me with an ambivalence built on a suspicion I didn’t have the courage of my lack-of-convictions, especially if it meant resisting my fondness for family, friends, lights, and presents.(*)

Then along came this joyous little film that celebrated the kid in all of us, that confirmed that Christmastime had less to do with religion than with childhood, that the celebration of Yule was no more dependent on belief in the story’s divine aspects than the celebration of fantasy was dependent on a belief in wizards.

Now, here I am, {mumble mumble} years later, a crotchety old critic who turns into a 10-year-old every time someone hums “Jingle Bells Batman Smells,” getting to sit in judgment of a theatrical mounting of the story that I haven’t experienced (on stage) since 2010.  For the sake of sanity, let us simply ignore the painful 2017 “Live TV” airing of the musical version of the story that seemed joyously unaware of tone and unconscious cringiness and the entire Jean Shepherd oeuvre.

“Oh sure,” I hear you say.  “Copy your previous reviews to show you’re smarter than the creative hive-mind of Pseudo-Live-TV Musicals!”  To be fair, I am (a tad) narcissistic and I thrive on suggesting I may actually have a clue about other writers (and their stylistic approach to prose and memory).  Still, it is a matter of bliss to sally forth to a new staging, to wallow in a wistful sigh and smile for the things that can be done with nothing but a love for theatre and roll of duct tape, an acknowledgement that, somehow, telling stories on a stage will somehow survive and flourish, even if the names and venues shift with the winds of time, pandemics, and financial fortunes.

But, I digress.

The key to making this story work is to capture that homespun sense of Jean Shepherd sitting down in front of a warm fire (or in a friendly pub) with an old friend and a mug of eggnog (or mulled wine), reminiscing about the idealized times of childhood.  And this production certainly captures that feeling as easily as a friendly snowball fight.  Tom Key’s adult Ralphie is a master of capturing the audience’s attention, of forming bonds with us as he spins his yarn.  This script belongs to the narrator, to how he connects with us and interacts with the cast, and any enjoyment of the play will ride on how well he does his job.  And Mr. Key does it very well, indeed!

This particular Parker family beautifully captures the ups and downs and trials and dreams of any-family without slavishly impersonating their movie (or prior stage) counterparts.  The irritating habits and compromised sighs and comfortable snuggles and games are all on view, all deepening the emotional heft of the story.  And even though adapter Philip Grecian has added some scenes and characters that pad out the story (a bit), it is never unwelcome padding.  I especially enjoyed the addition of two female classmates for Ralphie, some scenes with his friends obviously designed to give time for quick costume changes, and the addition of two act-opening group sing-alongs.

 

This is a dream cast of professionals (even the youngest amongst them). Leading them is the remarkable Max Walls as young Ralphie, already amassing a wealth of performances in more than two genders.   They perfectly capture the excitement of young Christmas avarice, of awkward first notice of (shudder) girls, of frantic fear of being “Killed by Mom and Dad,” at aggravations sprouting from a younger sibling, at wary connections with friends and teachers, at fear of local bullies, and, underscoring it all, a welcome wallow in the thrills and anticipations that make up the official kid Christmas season.  If they are (and look) substantially younger than their on-stage “contemporaries” (Michelle Pokopac fresh off a star turn in G.E.T.’s Wait Until Dark, Jemileen Vasquez, Gabriel Chavez-Vitiello, Pilot Bunch, and Lance Avery Brown), they have the stage presence and talent to make me believe they are just a shorter version of the same generation.  If they prefer going by “they,” they create a Ralphie who is unabashedly and proudly a “he/him.” 

 

As Mom and “The Old Man,” Atlanta (and my own personal) favorites Maria Rodriguez-Sager and Robin Bloodworth make us push out of (age-fading) memory any portrayal of these characters we have seen before.  They bring forth all the joys and ambivalences of parenthood and spousehood, making us believe they are true partners in this life-and-holiday adventure,  Other roles are quite ably filled by young August Smith as younger brother Randy (Lucas Hulsey at other performances I’ve yet to experience) and Brittani Minnieweather as teacher Miss Shields;  I have seen Ms. Minnieweather in numerous other productions and have always been impressed with her talent and range (she does not disappoint here).

 

Rosemary Newcott brings her considerable experience as a director of family-friendly holiday fare to bear, and delivers a production that scores in every moment, every emotional beat, every “easter egg” reminding us of the original movie, every “surprise” that departs from our expectations.  The pace is brisk and lively and, although the play is indeed much longer than the movie, it doesn’t SEEM so and is one of those shows that pleasantly surprise with its actual length.

 

Daimien J. Matherson and Monty Wilson have designed and constructed an attractive two-story set that keeps our focus on the family household without necessitating long scene changes for the few moments when the story strays outside and elsewhere.  I especially like the cloud of cotton through which the kids burst as they “slide down” from the off-stage department store Santa, suggesting that (frightful) slide without taking the time and effort to actually move it on-stage.

 

Lighting by Nadirah T. Harper, sound by Tyehimba Shabazz, and props and set dressings by Carolyn Cook are all spot-on and an asset to my total enjoyment of this play.


If I may digress before I finish, Ralphie Parker is the sort of character that reminds me of what I used to be (and often wish I still were).  Like him, I wore impossible-to-keep-unbroken glasses from an early age.  (Even now I go through reading glasses more often than bottles of wine.) Like him, I lived in horror of brothers and bullies, and shied from the conversation of my female peers.  Like him, I dreamed of the perfect Christmas present, and the perfect Christmas season.  Like him, I dreaded opening gifts from my Aunt (Socks and Underwear?  Thank you so much!  May I have another cookie?).

Like grown-up Ralphie, I look back on those days with the filters only adulthood can mercifully give.  The Christmases of my youth were always the best times of the year for me, even when they weren’t.  And, if my grown-up post-faith crotchety old pseudo-self doesn’t like it, he can just pull out his well-worn Christmas Story DVD, fill another bowl with port wine Jello, snuggle with his spouse, and be reminded of what Christmastime is really all about.

Or he can go see some talented professionals tell it on stage.  On any stage, big or small, it doesn’t matter.  He’ll remember it well and think well of those who brought it to him.

And I triple-dawg dare you to do the same!

 

This production is indeed a “Major Award” for anyone happy enough to experience it!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   #toChristmasStory)

 

(*) Way back in my young(er) adulthood, about ten years after this movie was first released, I had an extended correspondence with the late Tom Flynn, author of The Trouble with Christmas, about how I WASN’T “assimilating” into Christian culture by celebrating the holiday but would indeed be “assimilating” into Atheist group-think if I boycotted and denied my joy with the season.  Several of our exchanges were even published in Free Inquiry magazine, which, IMHO, validates my sceptical cred even as it undercuts it.   Don’t you just love ambivalence?

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