Play: A Christmas Story
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through December 27
Tickets: From $18; contact 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Story: Ralphie Parker has a lot on his mind in Hohman, Indiana back in 1938. Fueled by his devotion to the popular fictional hero, Red Ryder, Ralphie has his heart set on a genuine Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot range model air rifle, useful for assisting Red Ryder himself in his ongoing battles with Black Bart and other assorted villains (it even has a built-in watch!). While Red Ryder instructs Ralphie that their purpose is never to kill or wound but rather to shoot guns out of the bad guys’ hands, every other adult tells Ralphie that the BB-gun will only “put your eye out!”
Nevertheless, Ralphie makes subtle and unsubtle references to the rifle incessantly to Mother and The Old Man while the family prepares for Christmas. Ralphie also has to contend with the school bully Scut Farkas, the demands of his teacher, Miss Shields, the affection of lovely classmate Esther Jean, the reckless dares of buddy Schwartz, the misfortunes of his pal Flick and the never-ending search for his little brother Randy, who has a propensity for hiding in unlikely places. Yep, the world is a complicated place.
Highlights: Philip Grecian’s charming two-act work is based on the 1983 movie of the same name that featured a screenplay by Jean Shepherd (along with Leigh Brown and Bob Clark), as he reminisced about his childhood days in northwestern Indiana, as well as Shepherd’s book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. All of the familiar highlights from the holiday classic are here, including The Old Man’s prized “leg lamp,” the nasty encounter of Flick’s tongue with a frozen pole and Ralphie’s imaginative adventures saving pioneer families or impressing his swooning teacher with his writing genius.
The Rep’s production captures the heart-warming elements of Shepherd’s work as well as his quirky appeal. Director John McCluggage, a St. Louis native, keeps the performance moving at a sprightly pace and shows a knack for successfully harnessing the skills and enthusiasm of his mostly youthful cast. Special mention should go to sound designer Rusty Wandall, whose contributions include a squawky neighbor speaking to Mother on the telephone and some melodramatic background chords while Ralphie holds off sundry villains.
Other Info: Jeff Talbott gets into the spirit of the show as narrator Ralph, humorously mouthing key speeches by Ralphie as he recalls key moments in his past. At intermission some audience members expressed disdain for his performance, saying it was too over-the-top and lacked the level approach by the movie’s narrator. From my point of view, having never had the interest to watch the film all the way through, it was charming enough, particularly his asides as the wise and humble Red Ryder himself.
Marnye Young and Jeff Gurner complement each other nicely as the loving Mother and the slightly-addled Old Man, who battles the neighbor’s dogs and an unpredictable furnace while holding onto his own dream of a Christmas turkey dinner. Susie Wall is a hoot as Ralphie’s margin-obsessed teacher, and each of the children delivers an engaging interpretation, including Jonathan Savage as the bespectacled, serious Ralphie, Caden Self as the disappearing Randy, Julia Schweitzer as the endearing Esther Jane, Sarah Koo as the intellectually daunting Helen, Jarrett Harkless as Ralphie’s mischievous crony Schwartz, Drew Redington as the lumbering bully Scut Farkas and, most amusingly, Taylor Edlin as the perpetually sore-armed and ill-fated Flick.
Scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan shrewdly uses a carousel floor to emphasize the production’s many comic moments, adding assorted elements representing a classroom or a campfire to the sides of the main fixture of the Parker kitchen and living room. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting underscores the humor of the leg lamp as well as the cozy Parker home, Emily Frei is the “props artisan” who delivers the materials key to the story’s whimsical elements, and costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis is at her best with Ralphie’s pink bunny suit and Randy’s excessive protection from the elements.
The opening night audience was filled with an abundance of youngsters, fitting for this pleasant, family fare foray into nostalgia.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.