Review of A Christmas Story play
A review of the Geva Theatre Center adaptation of the classic film
Rochester, NY, December, 2009
By Debra Ross
"Over the years I got to be quite a connoisseur of soap," reports grown-up Ralph in Jean Shepherd's now-classic 1983 film A Christmas Story, as he recalls a predilection for using the language he copied from his father. Over the years, I'd felt as though I'd got to be quite a connoisseur of Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story, and the books on which he based it (In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash) and Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories). I know that movie practically line by line, and also love the books. So, I confess, when Philip Grecian's adaptation for the theater arrived at Geva Theatre Center in 2008, I didn't see it. Adaptations are never as good as the original, right? I was reluctant to wince my way through what I was sure would be a pale copy of one of my favorite movies.
Well, the reviews started trickling in, and they were mostly terrific. Could it be? I asked myself. I missed my chance to see it last year, but I made sure to get myself and the kids (girls, age 8 and 10) over to Geva this year. Still, I was wary as I eased myself into the comfy no-bad-seat-in-the-house chair at Geva's Mainstage.
Not for the first time, I'm happy to be proved wrong! The performance was uniformly fantastic: professional, captivating, and fast-paced. I was pretty sure my kids would have a good time; I had heard flattering reviews from people I trust. But I didn't expect myself to be so taken in, right from the opening scene.
A Christmas Story is the story of 9-year-old Ralph Parker and his Christmas quest for a BB gun, specifically "an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and this thing which tells time built right into the stock." Shepherd's tale is taken from his book In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash), and is interwoven with other Shepherd stories (the Scut Farkas bully affair, the sexy leg lamp, and more).
Some elements of the stage production were different from the film--a subplot that involved a schoolmate's little crush on Ralphie, for instance. Some scenes were switched. Some of the dialogue was different, too, but it was so beautifully rendered in the spirit of Jean Shepherd that it made me want to run right back home and check my copy of In God We Trust to see whether that was in Shepherd's original narrative. The addition of a visible adult Ralph as the narrator (in the movie you only hear his voice) was brilliant, especially as played by William Parry.
Did anyone steal the show? No, aside from Parry, I'd have trouble singling any actor out for the spotlight; from 8-year-old Kyle Mueller as Randy through 11-year-old Gavin Flood as Ralphie and on upwards, the performances were uniformly compelling, so natural, that from the opening lines, the audience was transported back to 1940s Indiana. One always wonders whether a cast dominated by middle-schoolers from one's home town can justify a $25-$50 ticket, but the performance of these kids--thanks in part, I'm sure, to director Mark Cuddy--was certainly equal to those of other Geva shows my family has seen.
Even amidst all of the rest of the talent on the Mainstage, there was one undeniable star of the show: Robert Koharchik, the set designer. Kids, as a rule, are excited by plot, not staging. But from the very first scene, my own children were as entranced by the set as the grownups were. They ooh-ed and aah-ed as the stage rotated in quarters among the Parkers' kitchen, living room, and outside/schoolroom/Christmas tree lot, and then the brilliant overlay of Higby's department store. Gorgeous, all of it.
Geva's plans for this production are to alternate it year-by-year with their former holiday show, A Christmas Carol. So in 2010, expect that show back -- although Artistic Director Mark Cuddy says that it will be "a brand new version of A Christmas Carol, one neither Rochester--nor anyone else--has ever seen. It will again be filled with the humanity of 19th-century London but told in an entirely new style." So if you don't want to wait until 2011, check out the KidsOutAndAbout.com special reader discount for A Christmas Story.
The best way to summarize A Christmas Story theatre experience? I can think of no more fun way than with Jean Shepherd's own words: "A nice, piquant after-dinner flavor - heady, but with just a touch of mellow smoothness." Whatever that means, you'll have a good time.
A Christmas Story runs for two hours and ten minutes, including intermission. Please remember that children under age 5 are not permitted in the theater.
Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00; Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 2:00 and 7:30, and Sundays at 12:00 and 4:30. No show on Christmas.
©2009, Debra Ross