Thursday, December 01, 2005

A Christmas Story (Cleveland Play House)

CPH’s ‘A Christmas Story On Stage” is worth seeing

Ask Clevelanders where the movie “A Christmas Story” takes place and they’ll probably answer, “here.” Ask where the movie was filmed and they’ll probably state “the west side of Cleveland and on Public Square in front of what used to be Higbee’s and May Company.”

In reality, the movie does not take place in Cleveland. The setting for the movie and the play, which is now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is Hohman, Indiana, the home of Jean Shepherd, the writer of the story on which the productions are based. And, though part of the movie was filmed in Cleveland, the production had to be moved to Toronto, because in the Winter of 1982, when the film was made, it didn’t snow much in the Best Location in the Nation. The downtown scenes were filmed with fake snow. But, take heart Cleveland banner wavers, the house at 3159 W. 11th Street, which was used for the exterior shots of the film, has recently been bought and is being refabed into “A ‘CHRISTMAS STORY’ museum.

Set during a Christmas season in the 1940's, nine-year-old Ralphie longs for the ideal Christmas gift--a “Red Rider 200-Shot, Range-Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.” When his mother, teacher, and even Santa warns, "You'll shoot your eye out!" Ralphie mounts a full-scale campaign that is a combination of innocence and calculation.

But this is more than a story about Ralphie and the BB gun. It is about the trials and tribulations of kids growing up in that safe and secure era which included being confronted by a bully with "yellow eyes,” and how a “Triple-Dog-Dare” leads to a tongue getting attached to a frozen lamp post. It highlights the tale of how Ralphie’s Old Man wins a "Major Award," which turns out to be a lamp in the shape of a woman's leg. And, how Ralphie blurts out swear words and gets his mouth washed out with Lifebuoy soap. It gives a glimpse of how Ralphie’s younger brother, who constantly has to go “wee-wee,” gets Santa to lose his cool. In reality, it’s a story of innocence, wonderment and the reality of being a kid.

When the movie was released in 1983 it did not become an instant hit. It wasn’t until it was released on video that it achieved cult status.

The film is big business. Leg Lamps sell on-line for $129.95. T-Shirts emblazoned with the film’s favorite lines including, "I Triple Dog-Dare You!", "You'll shoot out your eye,” and "Oh Fudge!" are available for $15.95. And Lifebuoy Soap is available for #3.95 a bar.

In 2000, an authorized stage play adaptation was written by Philip Grecian. It sticks very closely to the movie story line. It is that script which is being staged here.

The CPH production is directed by Seth Gordon. The play is generally delightful, though the pacing, at least on opening night, was somewhat slow and some of the characterizations could have been more on key.

Christopher McHale is marvelous as grown-up Ralph, who narrates the play. He is totally natural and completely believable. Charles Kartali as Ralphie’s Old Man and Elizabeth Ann Townsend as his mother are stereotype perfect. Angela Holecko, is a total delight as Esther Jane, the girl who has a crush on Ralphie.

Louie Rosenbaum (Flick) pulls off the best performance among the boys. He lights up a stage, especially when he gets his tongue stuck on the telephone pole and is being victimized by Alex Mayes (Scut Farkas, the bully).

Billy Lawrence creates the right image as Ralphie’s younger brother. The scene where he finds himself unable to move because of the amount of winter clothing he donned, is hysterical. The fact that he towers over Cody Swanson (Ralphie) creates a hard-to accept illusion for his required childish behavior.

Though acceptable in the role, Cody Swanson lacks the charisma, the delightfulness, to completely pull off the role of Ralphie. At times he says lines rather than creating images. For example, when he opens the box on Christmas Day and finds his long desired BB gun, there should have been unbridled delight. That quality just wasn’t present in that scene and in some others.

Michael Ganio’s fine scenic design consists of a snow-flaked filled sky, hanging over Ralphie’s multi-leveled house, a backyard, a school room, and a Santa’s mountain that would have made Higbee’s proud.

A side comment to purists: Higbee’s was a Cleveland department store. It didn’t have national branches. How could it be in Hohman, Indiana as the signs and references indicate?

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: I have loved ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY’ since I appeared as an extra in the film. (That’s a story which won’t be discussed here.) The Cleveland Play House production does little to break my affection though I wish the pacing was faster and some of the casting could have been different.