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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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