Saturday, December 05, 2009

A Christmas Story

‘A CHRISTMAS STORY on stage’ is soon to be a memory at CPH

It’s that time of year when theatres roll out their holiday cash cows, yearly offerings which fill the seats and help make the rest of the schedule possible. Great Lakes is offering ‘A CHRISTMAS CAROL,’ Cleveland Public Theatre is showcasing, ‘THE SANTALAND DIARIES,’ Karamu welcomes “GOD’S TROMBONES,’ Beck flies in ‘PETER PAN,’ Magical Theatre Company takes us to the prairie in, ‘A LITTLE HOUSE CHRISTMAS’ and for the fifth year Cleveland Play House brings up the curtain on ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY.’ Unfortunately, it’s the last showing of the script.

Though ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY’ takes place in Hohman, Indiana in 1938, most Clevelanders consider the movie and the play to be ours. Yes, part of the movie was made here, using a house at 3159 West 11th Street, which is now the official “A Christmas Story House,” and which you can tour to see many of the now famous visual images including the leg lamp. And, yes, Higbee’s decorated holiday windows and the welcome to Santa parade were centerpieces for the movie. But, to be honest, most of the film was shot in Toronto because the usual Cleveland “bad weather” refused to cooperate and there was no real snow for the outdoor shoots.

The film, as directed by Bob Clark, is a semi-fictional series of anecdotes of author, story teller and radio personality Jean Shepherd. It includes material from his books, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey's story Night of Golden Memories. ,

Though not a box office hit, the movie has become a holiday tradition through numerous television viewings. The film stared Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, Darren McGavin as The Old Man (Ralphie’s father) and Scott Schwartz as Flick, the kid gets his tongue stuck on a metal light pole. The play, as written by Philip Grecian, parallels the film.

A charming light comedy, the story centers on 9-year-old Ralphie Parker whose Christmas want-list includes only one thing: "an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time."

It’s a snapshot of life pre-television, Nintendo Wii, and gas furnaces. The days when the major trauma in Ralphie’s life centered on putting up with his weird younger brother, Randy, confronting school bully, Scut Farkus, and hanging out with his sidekicks, Flick and Schwartz. He feels the pangs of first love, in the form of Esther Jane. There is also his punishment of sucking on Lifeboy soap for swearing, waiting with impatience for his Secret Decoder pin from Little Orphan Annie, and his “watch the margins” teacher. There are the annual trip to visit Santa Claus at Higbee’s, the next door neighbor’s dogs who hated “The Old Man,” and the wars with the clinkers in the coal furnace. Oh, for the return to those days of innocence.

The CPH production, under the direction of Seth Gordon, is delightful. All the elements are there for enjoyment.

The adorable and talented Joey Stefanko is Ralphie, Charles Kartali is the bigger than life “Old Man,” Elizabeth Ann Townsend is the always right-on mother, Matthew Taylor is the “I have to go wee-wee” Randy (probably the best of all the kids who played this role at CPH), charming Olivia Doria is Esther Jane, Courtney Anne Nelson is the smart and feared Helen, Christian Flaherty, is the “if there is trouble I’m going to get into it’ Flick, Daniel Sovich acts well but is actually too handsome to be the menacing Scut Farkas, Christopher Burns is the reminiscing older Ralph and Pat Nesbit is the up-tight teacher.

The set is visually appealing, especially Santa’s home at Higbee’s.

Alex, “the kid reviewer,’” my 14 year old grandson who I take along to see if shows are kid friendly, loved the show, giving it an 8.5 on a ten point scale. He delighted in the farcical elements, liked the characterizations and, though he warned that there were “old time” references, like clinkers in the furnace, Little Orphan Annie and Lifeboy soap, he assured me, “kids will like this show.”

BTW….As much as I like to encourage parents to bring their children to the theatre, there were some younger kids on reviewer’s night who should not have been there. One child screamed his way through most of the first act and, at intermission, proceeded to almost wreck a Christmas tree in the lobby. Some discretion needs to be made in bringing young kids to any theatre production and a little discipline, other than smacking a child, which only encouraged more crying, is in order.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: So long to Cleveland Play House’s ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY on stage.’ It’s been a good run. For those who haven’t seen in it, go! For those who have, go again, and have a sweet memory of life as it was!