Friday, December 07, 2007


‘A CHRISTMAS STORY’ delights audience

The gentleman sitting behind me at opening night of ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY’ at the Cleveland Play House, seemed to be an “expert” on all things “A CHRISTMAS STORY.’ Unfortunately, almost everything he was telling his companions in a very loud voice, was mainly incorrect.

According to the self-anointed expert the play “was written by a Clevelander” and “that’s why it is set in Cleveland.” Fact: The story on which the movie and play were both based was written by Jean Shephard who was a Chicago native. The play was written by Philip Grecian, a native of Topeka, Kansas. The play is not set in this area. It is located in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana.

The “font of knowledge” went on to recount how the movie was made in Cleveland. Well, he was almost right on that one. Some of the scenes were shot in Cleveland, but due to a lack of big snows during January through March of 1983, when the movie was being shot, most of the filming was done in Canada. Yes, it was at 3159 West 11th Street in Tremont, where The Christmas Story Museum is now located, that some of the exterior hourse shots took place. (The interiors were filmed in a studio in Toronto.) And, yes, the parade scene was in front of the now closed Higbee’s Department Store in downtown Cleveland. The film makers had to make fake snow for those scenes.

He also said that the majority of the cast of the film were Clevelanders. Again, nope. The leads were Hollywood professionals, including Darren McGavin who played the Old Man, Melinda Dillon as the mother and Scott Schwartz as Flick. His information on the role of Ralphie was also off-base. He stated that Tom Hanks played Ralphie. No, Peter Billingsley played the role. Hanks did appear on stage in Cleveland as a member of Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, but he was not in the movie of ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY.’ I guess if you count all the extras in the parade scene (including yours truly) and other street scenes (which also included this reviewer) he might be right on the number of Clevelanders in the film.

And then there was his final pronouncement: “The Chinese restaurant the Parkers went to for Christmas dinner is still in business here.” Wrong, again. The restaurant scene was shot in Toronto. (Some locals have dubbed the C&Y Chinese Restaurant on St. Clair as the present day stand-in for the play’s Bo Ling’s Chop Suey Palace).

With that out of the way, what’s the play about? It relates a delightful, warm and fuzzy 1950s tale, about a mom who knows best; a dad who is a lovable boob; young Ralphie, who wants "an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and 'this thing' which tells time"; and the adventures of Ralphie and his friends.

There are subplots concerning the major prize the Old Man wins, how Flick is “triple dog dared” into sticking his tongue to a freezing metal pole, Ralphie’s disappointed reactions to his “Little Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder pin,” how Ralphie finally stands up to the bully Scut Farkas, and the next door neighbors' hound dogs who create a worldly hell for the Old Man.

The CPH production, under the direction of Seth Gordon, is generally delightful. It is nicely paced and visually creates the right moods.

Charles Kartali, playing The Old Man for the third time in this venue, populates the role. His tirades, his over-reactions, his anti-Father Knows Best persona is one of lynch pins of the show. Local favorite, Elizabeth Ann Townsend is properly compassionate as Ralphie’s mom. Kolin Morgenstern is delightful as Flick. (He probably should have been cast as Ralphie.) Lily Richards as Esther Jane, the girl who has a crush on Ralphie and Naomi Hill as Helen, the class brainiac, are fine. Christopher McHale, in his third appearance as Ralph (Ralphie all grown up) is full of youthful spirit as the narrator.

It is always dangerous to critique the performances of children. But, since CPH is a professional theatre, which can draw its cast from the entire country’s theatre community, the level of expectations has to be maintained, no matter the age of the performers. So, here goes. Though Billy Lawrence was generally acceptable as Ralphie, he is a little long in tooth to be playing the role. He is more a teenager than a child in size and mannerisms. Some of his performance was robotic, making the audience aware that he was acting, not living the role. Justin Montgomery Peck (Schwartz) had some nice moments, but his poor articulation made it almost impossible to understand his lines. Cameron McKendry (Scut Farkas) was not menacing enough to be playing the bully. He showed good acting presence and would have been better cast in another role.

Capsule judgement: ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY’ is the perfect holiday production to which to bring children and introduce them to the world of live theatre. Unless you’re a theatre critic, the few flaws with the show should not bother you, and all should leave with a warm feeling of life in the “good old days” before Iraq wars, Fox news and the concern over terrorist attacks. Oh, for the street cars on Euclid Avenue and downtown with shopping at Higbee’s and May Company, and being able to have lunch at Mills Cafeteria.