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A Christmas Story
by Philip Grecian
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
November 30, 2018

Charlie Mathis, Laurel Casillo, Brad Fraizer, Spencer Slavik
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It’s time for the Rep’s holiday show, and this year it’s one that’s become something of a modern classic. This version of A Christmas Story, though, is not the musical version that’s become popular of late. It’s a non-musical play adapted from the well-known film and the stories of humorist Jean Shepherd, who also narrated the film. It’s an adaptation that expands on the film slightly, but also doesn’t work quite as well as the movie or the musical, for that matter. Still, as staged at the Rep, it’s an entertaining production celebrating nostalgia and featuring some especially strong performances.

Like the film, this is narrated, but unlike the film, the narrator actually appears on stage and occasionally interacts with the rest of the characters. He’s the grown-up Ralph (Ted Deasy), who is reminiscing about his childhood in 1940s Indiana, and specially a particular holiday season in which his younger self, Ralphie (Charlie Mattis) was determined to receive the perfect Christmas present–a Red Ryder BB gun. The quest for this idealized dream gift forms the basic structure of the story, but in addition to this theme we see a picture of Ralphie’s family and life in a specific time and place. Like the musical version, this version puts a little focus on Ralphie’s parents (Laurel Casillo, Brad Fraizer) than the film does. We also meet Ralphie’s friends and classmates, including his best buddies Flick (Dan Wolfe), and Schwartz (Rhadi Smith), and the local bully, the menacing Scut Farkas (Tanner Gilbertson), as well as two girls in Ralphie’s class–the academically gifted Helen (Gigi Koster), and the kind Esther Jane, who engages in an awkward flirtation with Ralphie. The well-known elements from the film, such as the flagpole incident, Ralphie’s “Old Man’s” obsession with mail-in contests and his resulting “major award”, the frightening trip to see a department store Santa, are here, along with some additional moments especially for Older Ralph and the parents. It’s a “slice-of-life” kind of show, and it’s fun for the most part, although there are moments that don’t work as well on stage, such as the Santa moment, especially since we don’t actually see Ralphie and his brother Randy (Spencer Slavik) with Santa, who is only an off-stage voice. Also, the older Ralph character tends to dominate the story a little too much. The narration convention works well enough, but it comes across as a little too much at times.

The production values here are good, as well, although not quite as impressive as I’ve generally come to expect from the Rep. The 1940’s look and atmosphere is well maintained especially through David Kay Mickelson’s costumes, that manage to evoke the look of the film without exactly copying it much of the time. Michael Ganio’s set is excellent, especially in the detailed representation of Ralphie’s family’s house, but the department store Santa set is more underwhelming. There’s strong atmospheric lighting by Peter E. Sargent and sound by Rusty Wandall that help set and maintain the mood of the play and the sense of winter and the anticipation of the holiday season.

The biggest asset of this show is its cast, and especially the excellent Mathis in a winning performance as the determined Ralphie, and Casillo and Fraizer who are equally strong as his quirky parents. The family scenes, in fact, are the highlight of this production, although Jo Twiss as Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields also contributes a memorable performance. Deasy is mostly amiable as the older Ralph, although he does seem to be overdoing the “nostalgic wonder” aspect sometimes to the point of seeming artificial. There are some fine performances among the rest of the child performers in the cast, as well.

A Christmas Story is a somewhat unusual story in that it’s a combination of exaggerated comedy, folksy humor and affectionate nostalgia. That tone works better on film and in the musical than it does in the stage play, but the Rep’s production has its memorable moments, as well. For the most part, it’s an entertaining, well-cast rendition of the story that’s become a modern classic.

Charlie Mathis, Ted Deasy
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of the St. Louis is presenting A Christmas Story until December 23, 2018

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A Christmas Story, The Musical
Book by Joseph Robinette, Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Directed by Matt Lenz
Originally Directed on Broadway by John Rando
Choreographed by Jason Sparks, Based on Broadway Choreography by Warren Carlyle
The Fox Theatre
December 17, 2014

Colton Maurer and Cast Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

Colton Maurer (Center) and Cast
Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

A Christmas Story, the film, quickly became a holiday classic, to the point where some people make it a tradition to watch it every year, and cable channels show marathons of it in the holiday season.  In light of the trend of making movies into stage musicals, A Christmas Story seems an obvious choice, and the resulting show was nominated for the Tony for Best Musical in 2013. The US National Tour, currently running at the Fox Theatre, is a fun, well-cast production that celebrates the highlights of the movie and manages to find new angles to the story, as well.

The musical covers all the familiar ground of the film, based on the stories of author Jean Shepherd.  Shepherd is a faceless narrator of the action in the film, but here he appears (played by Chris Carsten) hosting his New York radio show and telling the story as a reflection of Christmases past.  Shepherd doesn’t simply narrate, either. He appears throughout the story commenting on the action and occasionally interacting with the characters.  The focus of Shepherd’s story is Ralphie Parker, who is played at alternating performances by Evan Gray and (at the performance I saw) Colton Maurer.  He lives in a small town in Indiana in 1940 with his mother (Susannah Jones), his “Old Man” (Christopher Swan) and younger brother Randy (Cal Alexander), and all he wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun.  The story echoes the film for the most part, following Ralphie’s quest to convince the adults in his life–such as his parents and his teacher, Miss Shields (Avital Asaleen)–that the coveted air rifle would be the ideal gift for him.

Many of the famous situations from the film are here, from the flagpole incident involving Ralphie’s friends Flick (Christian Dell’Edera) and Schwartz (Johnny Marx), to the bullying by Scut Farkus (Brandon Szep) and Grover Dill (Seth Judice), to the visit to the department store Santa (Andrew Berlin) and more.  The Santa scene gets a production number, “Up On Santa’s Lap” and a chorus of elves. It’s more comic than terrifying (as the film scene was), but it works for the stage.  Other incidents that get clever musical treatment include the arrival of the infamous leg lamp, which becomes “Major Award”, hilariously choreographed and danced by Swan and the lamp-toting ensemble, including the lamps in their kick line.  The fantasy sequences are handled well, too, with “Ralphie to the Rescue” casting Ralphie as an old time Western hero, saving his teacher and classmates from the bad guys with his trusty Red Ryder air rifle. There’s also a fun dance sequence in Act 2 with the jazzy “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”,  taking Miss Shields and Ralphie’s classmates to an imaginary Speakeasy, and featuring spectacular tap dancing by Asaleen and featured tapper Judice, leading the energetic ensemble of kids.  The show’s score is strong, for the most part, with the recurring theme of “It All Comes Down to Christmas” a hummable highlight, and a few songs that showcase Ralphie’s mother, like “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That”. In fact, the parents seem to be a bigger presence in this show than in the film, although Ralphie is still the main focus.

Since this is Ralphie’s story as told by Jean Shepherd, the casting of those two characters is critical for the success of this show, and this production gets it right. Carsten is amiable and enthusiastic as Shepherd, with a strong presence and some good moments throughout the show, and young Maurer is impressive as the determined, single-minded Ralphie.  He’s a thoroughly engaging protagonist, and even though he stumbles a little on the words to “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun”, he demonstrates a strong voice and great energy.  As Ralphie’s parents, Swan and Jones are also excellent, with Swan delightfully hamming it up in his big dance number, and Jones in excellent voice on her more gentle ballads.  Asaleen gets a great showcase as Miss Shields in the aforementioned “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”, and the kids’ ensemble is also very strong.

The look of the show is classic and Christmassy, evoking the film but also stylizing it a bit. Walt Spangler’s original design has been adapted for the tour by Michael Carnahan, with its snow globe-like backdrop and snowy-roofed multi-level house for the Parkers.  The scenery is also cleverly adapted in some of the fantasy sequences, such as when Miss Shields’ desk acquires wheels and becomes a covered wagon.  The costumes, adapted by Lisa Zinni from Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s original designs, are colorful and evocative, as is the striking atmospheric lighting originally designed by Howell Binkley and adapted by Charlie Morrison.

Overall, this show accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s an entertaining holiday show that celebrates the famous film without strictly copying it.  Personally, I’ve only seen the film in its entirety once (in addition to numerous clips), but my impression is that this show seems to capture much of the spirit of the film while expanding the story a bit, especially the focus on the parents.  With a strong, likable cast and a fun visual theme, it’s a sweet, funny and nostalgic story for all ages.

Susannah Jones, Christopher Swan, Cal Alexander, Colton Maurer Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

Susannah Jones, Christopher Swan, Cal Alexander, Colton Maurer
Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

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