Friday, December 06, 2013

A CHRISTMAS STORY somewhat disappoints at Cleveland Play House

 In January of 1983, as the on-air entertainment reviewer for Continental Cable, I was assigned to interview Peter Billingsley, the lead child actor in a forthcoming movie which was being filmed in Cleveland. 

I not only did the interview, but stood in as an extra on Public Square with fake snow being sprayed because the real stuff didn’t fall in the two weeks of filming in this area, was a grouchy man on the porch of a house on Cleveland Street (really West 11th) a couple of addresses down from what is now known as “The Christmas House,” and took Peter (Ralphie), his mother and Scott Schwartz (Flick) on a tour of Cleveland because the producers of the film hadn’t made any arrangements for anything for the kids to do between shooting their scenes.

The front porch scene was left on the cutting room floor, and after a dozen viewings I still can’t find myself in the crowd scenes, but the memories remain and the  interview was aired.

Like so many other Clevelanders, I consider A CHRISTMAS STORY to be “our” film.  In reality, most of it was shot in Canada, the city in which it is set is in Indiana, and the house and backyard which have been created into a shrine, was only used for a couple of outside shots.  But, who cares.  The weakly reviewed film has become a movie classic and when friends come in from out of town, they ask to see where Ralph almost shot out his eye, and where his friend’s tongue got stuck to the pole. 

Who am I to break the illusion?  It’s part of Cleveland lore, like the mayor who set his hair on the fire,  the river that went up in flames, and the horrors of being a local sports fan.

Unless you don’t have a television which displays the movie version over and over this time of year, you know the tale of A CHRISTMAS STORY. 

A newly envisioned stage version of A CHRISTMAS STORY is now at Cleveland Play House’s Allen theatre.  A new cast, set, and director are on display.

Based on the short stories and semi-fictional anecdotes of author, story teller and radio personality, Jean Sheperd, the movie, play and musical are based on his book IN GOD WE TRUST, ALL OTHERS PAY CASH, along with some ideas from WANDA HICKEY’S NIGHT OF GOLDEN MEMORIES. 

Narrated by “grown up” Ralph, we revel in the story of nine-year-old Ralphie, who dreams of getting a “Red Ryder BB Gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.”  It’s in the era before television, computer games, smart phones, ipods and ipads, which might be a culture shock to the children who attend. 

Ralphie sets out to convince the world that the bb gun is the perfect gift.  But, along the way he runs into opposition from his parents, his teacher and even good ‘ol Santa Claus.  We meet little brother, Randy, who oinks like a piggy when he eats, the school bully, Scott Farkas, The Old Man, a pack of wild dogs who hound poor old dad, clinkers in the furnace, and new-old cars that don’t start.  We are exposed to the “triple-dog dare!,” learn why Ralphie should “drink his Ovaltine,” why he loathes lifeboy soap, and what happens when he realizes the consequences of, “Only I didn’t say ‘Fudge.’ I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the F-dash-dash-dash word!”   

It’s a cute story filled with childhood nostalgia for those of the “mature” generation, and a chance to experience the “olden days” by the younguns.

CPH’s production, under the direction of John McCluggage, doesn’t quite have the charm and dynamics of past stagings.  It’s just “too Hallmark bland,” lacking the needed texturing and farcical overtones.  The Old Man isn’t as angst filled.   Scut Farkas isn’t as fearsome as could be.  Even Schwartz getting his tongue caught on the metal pole isn’t drama-filled.  Randy’s wails that he has to go “wee-wee” aren’t pathetically funny.  

Everything is okay, but the missing edge that makes the whole thing farcically funny isn’t there.   Overplay, rather than underplay is needed to make the production zing along on its merry way. 

Especially disappointing is the Higbee’s Santaland set.  With all the attention being given to the flexibility of the Allen’s new stage, the cheaply assembled igloo, without the visible long slide and Higbee holiday trees and decorations, just doesn’t cut it. A bucket of coal to scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan.  He seemed so obsessed with playing with his revolving stage, that he forgot the needed visual wonderment of the pivotal Santa scene.

The cast is pleasant.  Jeff Talbott is spot on as Ralph, showing the right levels of enthusiasm and nostalgic recreating.  Matthew Taylor is cute as Ralph, Carisa Tanner is adorable as “love struck” Esther Jane, Cameron Danielle Nelson is a proper know-it-all as Helen, Cole Emerine is the strongest of the boys as the much maligned Flick, and Maggie Lacey does a good imitation of a bland Donna Reid as Mother. 

Michael Hentzman is acceptable as The Old Man but needed to overplay rather than underplay the role in order to get the farcical responses.  Laura Perrotta is fine as Miss Shields, but could have used a little more school-marmish dynamics.  Cute Lee Greene needs to project more as Schwartz as most of his lines were left at the edge of the stage.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: A CHRISTMAS STORY holds a special place in the hearts of many Clevelanders.  The present staging, under the direction of John McCluggage, while engaging, misses out on some of the farcical and endearing dynamics needed to make this a totally wonderful holiday present.  It’s not bad, just not everything that it could be or has been.

A CHRISTMAS STORY runs through December 22, 2013 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to