Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Christmas Story

Nostalgic ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY’ delights at Play House

Many Clevelanders think that ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY,’ whose stage version is now being produced by the Cleveland Play House, is set in Cleveland, and is written about life in the Forest City during the 1940s. In actuality, Jean Shepherd, whose books and stories the movie, and subsequently the play, was based on, sets the story in the fictional northern Indiana town of Hulman.

So what’s the Cleveland connection? As legend reveals, Cleveland was chosen as the site to shoot the film because the producers needed snow and a MidAmerican setting. Everything went well in the early shooting, except it didn’t snow. In fact, the famous Christmas parade scene in front of Higbee’s Department Store and the house and streets covered with snow, were an illusion. Fake snow was sprayed around to create the illusion of the real stuff. Finally, the production team packed up and left, going to Canada, where it was snowing, to finish the flick. But, all that withstanding, “A Christmas Story” is a Cleveland institution.

Today, at 3159 W 11th Street, on Cleveland’s near west side, stands the house that was used for the exterior shots. Its inside has been reconstructed to resemble the movie’s rooms which, in actuality, were built in a Canadian warehouse, and it is open for daily tours. A museum and gift store across the street sell the legendary leg lamps, Lifebuoy soap and action figures of Ralphie.

I have fond recollections of that film. I actually was an extra, who was cast in a serendipitous way. I was working for a television company and was dispatched to do an interview with Ralphie (Peter Billingsley). Peter and his mother had never been to Cleveland and I offered to take them around when he wasn’t shooting. So, the three of us, plus Scott Schwartz who was playing Flick, explored Cleveland. I was asked to appear in the film. Most of my footage wound up on the cutting room floor, but it was a fun experience.

The play centers on 9-year-old Ralphie Parker, who wants only one thing for Christmas – "an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle (BB Gun) with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time." Between run-ins with his younger brother Randy and having to handle school bully, Scut Farkus, Ralphie does not know how he will ever survive long enough to get the BB gun.

But, as in all good comedies, the ending is happy as Ralphie overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get the instrument which all of the adults of his life remind him, “you will shoot your eye out.” And, in the end, he almost does!

The CPH production, under the direction of Seth Gordon, is quite good. Of course, whenever you use child actors, there is going to be some variance from the requirements of professional theatre’s desire for concentration and discipline. In the main, except for difficulty in his articulation and speed in delivering lines which caused slurring, Kolin Morgenstern makes for a fine Ralphie. The super star of the kids, however, is Joey Stefanko, whose Flick, is delightful. His getting his tongue stuck on the light post and being bully Scut Farkas’s punching bag, were sheer fun.

Wilbur Edwin Henry, who looks remarkably like what you would perceive Ralphie looking like as a grown up, makes for a convincing Ralph, who serves as the narrator and reminds us of the nostalgia of growing up. Carole Monferdini is dead on as the uptight elementary teacher who demands “correct margins.”

In the roles they’ve played for the past four years, Charles Kartali as the Old Man (Ralphie’s father) and Elizabeth Ann Townsend (mother) are wonderful.

Michael Ganio’s set designs work well, as does David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes and Richard Winkler’s lighting.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH has found a cash cow in ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY.’ Even on a Thursday night of a school week, almost every seat in the Bolton Theatre was filled with adults and children. I’m not sure locals will ever get tired of seeing this wonderful piece of nostalgia. Thanks CPH for giving us a shot of remembering how good the simple life of the past was in days before the spoiling of imagination and making kids grow up too soon.

(P.S--I went home and went through my junk box which contains some of the “relevant” mementos of my past and “gosh darn it” I couldn’t find my Orphan Annie decoder ring! Maybe I can borrow Ralphie’s.)