"You'll shoot your eye out!
"I triple-dog dare you!"
"I can't put my arms down!"
Is there a more quotable movie than A Christmas Story? Around my house at least, it’s the one film no one ever gets tired of. With its dry humor and unsentimental look at middle-class American childhood, this 1983 comedy provides the perfect antidote to sappier holiday fare.
Which may explain why it’s the basis for not one but two very different stage productions. The musical version, famous for its leg lamp kick line, debuted on Broadway in November. The one that just opened at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is the decidedly non-musical but wildly funny version published in 2000 by Philip Grecian, a Kansas playwright who has a long association with Colorado’s Creede Repertory Theatre.
The play, like the movie, is set in 1938 in Hohman, Indiana, a fictionalized version of the real-life hometown of radio personality Jean Shepherd, who wrote the original stories. There, 9-year-old Ralphie Parker wants nothing more for Christmas than “an official Red Rider carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and this thing that tells time right in the stock.” But everyone from his parents to his beloved teacher to Santa himself gives him the same ominous warning: “You’ll shoot your eye out!"
Potential land mines abound in adapting anything so well-known and well-loved for the stage. But Grecian balances a very narrow tightrope, resurrecting the most iconic dialogue to make long-time fans happy while adding enough new material to keep it fresh. And director Joye Cook Levy adds plenty of comic touches of her own. (Read the Indy's preview of the play here.)
One of these is making the adult Ralphie more than just a narrator but a character in his own right. Here he moves in and out of scenes, watching the action up close and egging his younger self on when all seems lost. Still wearing the oversized spectacles of his youth, this Ralph is played by Jason Lythgoe, a multi-talented actor who must have figured out a way to clone himself because it seems as though he’s appeared in every local play this year.
At times, I did think his delivery was rushed, preventing the audience time from soaking in all of Ralph’s colorfully phrased commentary. But Lythgoe gave the character a nerdy, self-effacing quality that contrasted nicely with his more folksy persona in the film.
The most dangerous part of any theater critic’s job is reviewing kids. To be honest, it’s often more convenient (and safer) to ignore them altogether. I can’t get away with that here because the seven young actors in the cast form the heart and soul of the piece. So I’m glad — and more than a little relieved — to say that they’re all terrific.
Ralphie is played by Evan Lennon, a spirited seventh-grader who brings a winning pluckiness to the part. Finn Dufford is hilariously obnoxious as little brother Randy, getting laughs each time he whines, "I gotta go wee-wee!" And London Lyle lends an innocent charm to a new role created for the play, that of Esther Jane, Ralphie’s budding young love interest.
My only critique (here goes!) is that some of the kids could have projected a little more, as their smart-alecky banter was sometimes hard to hear.
I may be committing heresy here, but I've got to admit there's one weakness with the film. I’ve always thought the story was too episodic, with nothing tying one scene to the next. That’s not the problem here. Grecian extends many of the scenes and ties them all together in ways that heighten the tension and provide a much bigger payoff.
For example, in the movie, the turkey is little more than an afterthought. But in the play, the Old Man (an amusingly grumpy Tom Auclair) spends quite a bit of time planning for and mooning over and rhapsodizing about the big bird, so when it finally disappears in a perfect storm of furry fury, the whole scene comes across much funnier.
The elaborate set, designed by R. Thomas Ward, is its own Christmas miracle, effortlessly transforming from classroom to department store to the simple but cozy home where Ralphie dreams his spectacular hipshot-fueled dreams. That house is used to full advantage in a very funny, wordless sequence in which Mother (the always good Eryn Carman) and the Old Man battle for control of the legendary leg lamp.
That leg lamp, by the way, can be yours for a measly $5, if you’re lucky enough to win the raffle that the FAC is holding.
But if you do win it, be careful. It’s fra-jee-lay.
A Christmas Story
Through Dec. 23, Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, SaGaJi Theater, 30 W. Dale St. Tickets, $27-$37. Call the box office at 634-5583 or visit csfineartscenter.org for more info.