Taking a classic film to the stage—especially one that gets a 24-hour airing at Christmas—is fraught with challenges. At first, the rhythms in A Christmas Story at the Children's Theatre Company seemed too familiar. The 1983 film has been burned into the consciousness to the point that you knew what was coming, and that anticipation stripped the comedy out of the eternally belching furnace or a heavily padded child going out into the cold.
A funny thing happened about midway through the first act—it stopped mattering. The talented CTC cast and a playful design combined to make the familiar story fresh once again.
Drawn from the childhood memories of Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story tells the story of Ralphie...oh, heck, you know the story. In shorthand: licking a lamppost on a cold winter's day, bad furnace, bad words, leg lamp, bullies, Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, and an "official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time."
On stage, the Ralphie role gets split between two actors—talented youngster Taylor Scott Leighton and longtime veteran Bradley Greenwald. Serving as a narrator can be a thankless task, but Greenwald pulls it off well, gently leading us from one scene to the next while providing just enough narrative glue to make it seem a cohesive whole rather than a bunch of vignettes.
With the narrative side carried by Greenwald, it falls to Leighton to make the story come alive with his young Ralphie. He plays it all in an outsized way. That approach makes perfect sense, as we are watching youthful memories unfold, in which every triumph and disappointment, loss and victory, ends up 10 sizes larger in our minds. Leighton is particularly good in the moments of crisis—when he unleashes the F-word or finally stands up to bully Scut Farkus, every emotion played perfectly through his voice, expressions, and body language.
The only adults in the world are played by Gerald Drake as "the Old Man" and Autumn Ness in a dual role as Ralphie's mother and margin-obsessed teacher Miss Shields. All the roles are written as oversized creations—the way a child sees parents and adults—and both Drake and Ness play it to the hilt, be it the crusty dad's endless stream of fake obscenities directed at the furnace or the mother's desire to rid the house of the "major award" won in a contest.
Along with Leighton, the young cast does strong work throughout the show. That's important, as it is their worldview that really makes A Christmas Story not just work but sing. Ralphie's friends, Flick and Schwartz, are brought to goofy life by Charles Lincoln and Austen Fisher. The aptly named Chaos Bebault plays bully Scut Farkus in the way we all remember our neighborhood tormentors—always present and ready to apply a hurting whenever we turned around.
The 10-actor cast is rounded out by nice turns from Kimberly Hatlestad and Helen Weathers as Ralphie's female classmates (who scare him almost as much as Farkus) and Alec Fisher as messy, rambunctious younger brother Randy.
The strong performances throughout are in turn aided by director Peter Brosius's fantasyland approach to the whole show and by the design team's creations. While all of the set is grounded in reality—from the main house set to the scenes outside, in school, or elsewhere, it all has an extra layer to it. Ralphie's first visions of owning the official Red Ryder BB gun are played out by him vanquishing a trio of cattle rustlers while his frightened family look on. Then, when the object of his dreams finally appears on Christmas morning, a glowing light emerges when Ralphie opens the box.
What all this means is that A Christmas Story at the Children's Theatre is a great supplement to the pleasures of the original film and a fresh take on a holiday-season tradition.