Not to put a lump of coal in anyone's hung-with-care stocking, but Tennessee Rep's new A Christmas Story gets stuck in the chimney more often than it delivers the expected seasonal goodies. The company aims for the latter with energy to spare, but given Philip Grecian's cluttered stage adaptation of the lovably antic Yuletide cult movie, it would take a lot more than an "official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle" for this production to hit the holiday bull's-eye.
A little research tells us that this version of director Bob Clark's 1983 charmer is now 10 years old, and it continues to receive its share of theatrical mountings nationwide. Doubtless, companies are happy to have something new instead of defrosting the same old Christmastime fruitcake—whether it's A Christmas Carol, or It's a Wonderful Life, or even The Santaland Diaries (each of which The Rep has performed successfully during the past decade).
So we bring to this effort a double shot of willingly suspended disbelief—including the extra acknowledgment that any stage play attempting to recreate the magic of a classic film faces an uphill sleigh ride. Unfairly or not, the cast assembled on the Johnson Theater stage must compete not only with the memory of author Jean Shepherd's indelibly quirky narration—childhood recalled in present tense but with a grown-up's hindsight—but also with young Peter Billingsley's bespectacled Everyboy perfection as grade-school hero Ralphie Parker. Even veteran actor Darren McGavin remains burned into the consciousness as Ralphie's dad, "The Old Man," whose peculiar routines and strange obsessions drive whatever action is not concerned with Ralphie's friends, his school mishaps, or his desperate Christmas wish for the aforementioned BB gun.
When you're up against icons—even McGavin's memorably hideous lamp is now a Hallmark ornament—you have to find a better (or at least drastically different) approach or risk screwing the pooch. The smalltown 1940s Indiana milieu comes alive believably enough on Gary Hoff's set, which alternates storefronts with the Parker home and features flooring colorfully laid out as a calendar page for the month of December.
Meanwhile, the cast of seven tries mightily to channel the story's comical episodic zeal, reinforced by occasional pantomime, piped-in sound effects, underscoring derived from the Nutcracker and Peter and the Wolf, a performance or two (or three) in drag, and sincerely pitched portrayals of the tale's long-awaited characters. These include all-time-great bully Scut Farkas (Shane Bridges, who, like most of the other cast members, serves multiple ensemble duties) and a surly unseen Santa, mixed in with others new to the scenario via writer Grecian's reworking.
Alas, the evening's wallow in third-hand nostalgia is telegraphed right from the get-go, with an opening ensemble tableau offering a somewhat sanctimonious celebration of the story's familiarity—as if to say, Aren't we all glad we're here! That's followed by a run-through of the audience-participation drill, which enlists viewers to supply the sound effects of barking dogs, whistling winds, etc. It may not be the intention of director René Copeland and her players, but this jolt of glee-club energy seemed forced, if not better suited to a children's production: It had the unfortunate effect of sapping some of the original's curiously edgy universal appeal. The gimmicks also needlessly pad out the show's running length to two-and-a-half hours—not an improvement, considering the original film runs 94 minutes. Adults will be reminded how slowly time seems to pass on Christmas Eve.
Playwright Grecian does manage one semi-skillful translation of the movie into theatrical terms. To turn Shepherd's narration into stagecraft, Grecian has Ralphie shift between participant and observer, delivering Shepherd's remembrances directly to the audience before slipping back into the family tableaux. That keeps the story moving: The notable events happen on cue, with some legitimate laughs along the way. But for the play's entire running time, it's playing catch-up with our fond recollections of the movie—which means it's not equally good in a new way, either.
Burdened with the task of being a grown-up actor portraying young Ralphie, Sam Whited undergoes the evening's main crucible. He's cutely charming sometimes—pink bunny pajamas and all—and Copeland's staging finds him beating hasty retreats into the audience to deliver literate, well-articulated monologues. Such blocking adds needed movement and changes the pace in energetic ways. But it doesn't solve the production's main problem: a flawed, talky script that tries to do too much and demands too much of everyone involved.
To be fair, as a holiday diversion this Christmas Story definitely has fun moments perpetrated by talented and well-motivated performers. Maybe that—along with the immediate pull of its source material—will satisfy those looking for a pleasant family outing this season. You could certainly do worse. After all, you could shoot your eye out.
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