In the beginning, there was the holiday special — comforting as a cauldron of cocoa and twice as tooth-rottingly sweet. Pathetic Peanuts pageantry and sexually ambiguous stop-motion elves are all well and good, but who can really swallow all that "peace on earth" pap? Finally, in 1983 there was born unto us a Christmas movie that finally understood the true reason for the season — the pursuit of presents! My admiration for A Christmas Story has evolved beyond atavistic avarice in the quarter-century since, and even cable-TV's Sartrean recycling can't diminish my annual appetite for another viewing of director Bob Clark's instant classic.
Orlando Repertory Theatre's satisfying stage production (adapted by Philip Grecian from the screenplay and original novel, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, by beloved humorist Jean Shepherd) isn't a paint-by-numbers re-creation of the screen version. Young Ralphie Parker (Owen Teague) is still waiting for Santa in 1940s Indiana, desperately wheedling his put-upon parents (Brandon Roberts and Becky Eck) for a Red Ryder BB gun. The major mileposts are intact: His baby brother, Randy (Benjamin Longstaff), needs to wee and can't put his arms down; his BFF Flick (Sean Buckley) flash-freezes his tongue on a triple-dog dare; his schoolteacher Miss Shields (Alexis Jackson) cackles, "You'll shoot your eye out!" But be prepared that some memorable moments are missing ("I like the Tin Man"; "Fa-ra-ra-ra-rah"), and a prepubescent romantic subplot has been inserted with semisuccess.
Mike Gill shoulders the show's expository weight as the adult Ralph. He can't match the mellifluousness of Jean Shepherd's warmly nostalgic original off-screen oration, but who could? (I've been known to sit through Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress just to hear his honeyed voice-over.) Instead, director Tad Ingram injects Gill unseen into scenes where he interactively narrates with a childlike ebullience (even if his brunette beard and cabbie cap make it feel like A Hanukkah Story). Roberts' portrayal of the irascible old man is a highlight, as he brings his remarkable comic physicality to battling his balky furnace, an old Oldsmobile or the hillbilly neighbors' hellhounds. Roberts is well-balanced by Becky Eck as his wife, as she wages silent war against his aesthetically appalling "major award."
Through Dec. 21, 2008 at Orlando Repertory Theatre
The nicest surprise came from the younger members of the cast. Often child actors in the REP's productions come across as annoyingly overcoached, but these kids sound like actual children. Towheaded Teague makes an excellent analogue for young Peter Billingsley, and he and his pals project a genuine camaraderie. Their authenticity makes for occasional volume and diction issues, but the raptly attentive kids in the audience around me didn't seem to have trouble understanding.
Extra credit goes to the tech team: the massive middle-class Midwestern house by designer Bert Scott; spot-on re-creations of iconic costumes and props by Marcy Singhaus and Sam Hazell; comical audio cues by John Valines and lovely (occasionally loopy) lighting by Amy Hadley. Bottom line: the REP's A Christmas Story could never replace the original, but it didn't make me want to shoot my eye out.[email protected]