By John Millman-Dwyer
“A Christmas Story” has become a classic for many. As an older adult, I found it late, as I was too busy to give it much attention in the 1980s when it first came out as a movie. As a stage production, this is the first time for me to see the Philip Grecian adaptation. I thoroughly enjoyed the musical, which I saw not too long ago, but the play is different.
The story is about remembering what it was like to be a child in the 1940s at Christmas. You are asked to remember your childhood as Ralph Parker remembers his. He, and implicitly we, had an all-American Fred MacMurray crazy kind of Old Man, a loving mother, a cute brother, neighborhood kids and Santa. And he, and implicitly we, want only one thing for Christmas above anything else. In this case it was an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model BB rifle with a compass in the stock.
These are reminiscences of childhood.
In the movie, you never see the adult Ralph. There is a voiceover in the movie and, without really seeing him, the voice stands in for an everyman or an everychild, who remembers Santa, gift lists, the turkey and so many other traditions.
In the musical, the adult Ralph is made flesh, but still his part is far from central, as the memories are center stage with musical numbers. Old Ralphie is only occasionally seen to narrate from far stage right or left. The central character is always the child, who we remember as being very close to ourselves.
In this new incarnation, adult Ralph is an ever-constant presence narrating the connection between vignettes. With the Town and Country small stage, he inhabits the same space as the childhood memories and vies for our attention as a central character to the plot. With more narrator lines and with him being a physical presence, he is asking more for us to identify with him as an adult in this version, and that lessens the identification of him as a child.
As a voiceover or a lesser presence in the show, he is an extension of us and our dreams. With this large dose of him as an adult, he becomes more a separate identity. Also, by expounding so much on things, the playwright breaks the rule of “Don’t tell me, show me.” As a memory play, this is not so egregious as it would be in other plays. But it still has changed the play and its perspective and not to the better. I am certain there will be defenders of having adult Ralphie take on a larger role. I am not one of them.
Allowing that the play is what it is, the stage directions for the show would be for a normal proscenium arch with a bigger stage space where Adult Ralph could be isolated to reflect. Often Town and Country directors need to totally re-think staging, due to the uniqueness of their space. I personally feel there was a missed opportunity by director Annamarie Hughes in not chucking the conventional staging of the narrator adult Ralph. I think it would have been interesting by putting him in a preset with the audience. He could have risen from the audience wishing everyone “Happy Holidays,” and with a few ad-libs, transition into the script. Perhaps, in a few chosen spots, there could be an interaction with the audience about Santas or department stores or the like. But without that, what gets lost is a bringing in the audience, as old Ralph becomes more like, as previously stated, just another player in the story.
Regardless, Andy McPhee was cast well as adult Ralph, as he looked like that guy who may wax nostalgic about days gone by. Most of the delivery was very well done but, at points, due to so much dialogue given this extra character, it sounded like a book report. This, again, in part is due to Philip Grecian’s writing. More audience interaction could have helped solve that issue, such as making eye contact with an audience member and telling the story directly to them.
Will Trymbiski did well as Ralphie Parker, the child obsessed with the holidays and getting his chosen gift, a BB gun. Mason Ambs was sweetly dimpled and charming as younger brother, Randy. In casting, though, it would have been nice to see a height difference in the older and younger brother, as much of the jokes for Randy are centered on his being the baby of the family. Logan Ambs, Sean Spencer Semanoff, Phillip Schneller were fun as Ralphie’s male classmates. Olivia Incudine, Lucie Van Hoof acquitted themselves well as quite fine young actresses, as the girls in his class.
On the adult side of things, there is Dad who is affectionately know as The Old Man. This was played with high energy anxiousness by the very talented Kevin Palardy. More in a Steve Martin vein than Darren McGavin, but endearing and funny. He is counterbalanced by Mother, played by Alyssa Moore who was calm, patient and loving. Moore was especially effective in the latter scenes where she subtly turns her focus on her eldest and shows a mother’s love.
Valerie Sharper had fun moments as the children’s teacher, Miss Shields. Dave Levy is always dependable as an actor. Having seen him in several shows, he has great comedic skills and can be relied on to deliver a line with such non-plussed exasperation that you always laugh. He was wonderful in the multiple roles of Santa, Tree Lot Owner and Delivery Man.
In the end, though, Christmas is all about children and magical moments. One of the brightest of which is when the children’s ensemble of Breanna Flannelly, Mackenzie Moreno, Lilly Norcross, Nora Bella Stern-Kushnier, Penelope Stern-Kushnier dance for us. This was not in the script, I suspect. It was a wonderful addition. Everyone was smiling ear to ear, as the young ladies danced to the choreography of Suzanne Safran. Kudos to Safran and her dance troupe. Congratulations, as well to Dave Sharper, Barb Emch and Karen Abrams for a fun set and set pieces.
The magic of childhood is so much the magic of the holidays. It is about good cheer. It is about tradition. This story is so much a tradition. All of the children in the cast were at the doors wishing us all a “Happy Holiday!” as we left. If the show makes you wistful for Christmases past, the kids made me grateful for Christmases now. Thank you to the young people.
“A Christmas Story” runs through Nov. 23 at Town and Country, and tickets are available online.
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