THEATRE: A CHRISTMAS STORY

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A CHRISTMAS STORY

One of Mr. X and my favorite holiday activities in recent years is seeing the Christmas presentations at Sierra Madre Playhouse. And this year, they’ve outdone themselves with A Christmas Story. It’s the perfect holiday entertainment! I cannot tell you how much I loved this production! (And you know that I rarely say that!)

The stage before the show beigns.  Photo by Karen Salkin, as is the big one at the top of the page.

The stage before the show beigns. Photo by Karen Salkin, as is the big one at the top of the page.

The mounting of the play version of this now-classic film is one of the most gargantuan theatre undertakings I can ever imagine, especially for a smaller theatre like this one! I could not for the life of me figure-out how they were going to do it. I had no idea that this had been a play, and even a Broadway musical, in the past, so I guess there is a bit of a blueprint, albeit for much bigger theatres.

So I’m happy to report that director Christian Lebano’s production is a delight. I really hope that everyone reading this anywhere near Southern California will make time to see this show. The many surprises alone are worth the visit. Mr. X was smiling the entire time, (outside of when he was laughing.) And admitted it! He usually grumbles about seeing shows with me, but not only did he really enjoy this one, he went willingly, based on SMP’s past productions.

Even though we’ve seen the movie version of A Christmas Story so many times that we know it by heart, we got giddy over so many of the production surprises here. I don’t want to spoil any of them for you, but I am bursting to tell you that when some holiday lights came on over the audience on opening night, it brought big “oohs” and “ahhs.”

The main set. Photo by Karen Salkin.

The main set. Photo by Karen Salkin.

If you’ve never seen the film, (which I can’t even imagine!,) you should be charmed by this discovery. And if you have, you will be happy to follow along; we were impressed with how they pulled-off the different locations and scenes on just a small-ish stage. It’s all very clever. They even do the fantasy bits from the film, that are my least liked parts of it to begin with. But here they actually amused me.

The set itself, designed by Charles Erven, could not be more perfect. It’s wonderful, on every level. Even the proscenium arch is painted appropriately for the occasion! And all the old-school appointments really made my mouth water. I also love the old-school wardrobe.

One end of the festive  lobby. Photo by Karen Salkin.

One end of the festive lobby. Photo by Karen Salkin.

The festive atmosphere is set from the moment you enter the lobby of Sierra Madre Playhouse. All real-world thoughts should melt away as soon as you step inside this winter wonderland. Holiday music is playing, and there’s a Christmas tree at one end, with a seat for Santa, should he choose to visit. One wall is lined with the entries from the “Ugly Lamp Contest.” (I think a winner has already been chosen, but you can see them all for the duration.) And the other has a display of popular holiday toys through the years, complete with an original Barbie, and a Shirley Temple doll! (I had one myself, but this one is from 1934! Oh my.)

The "Parker Family": (Clockwise from top) Richard Van Slyke, Griffin Sanford, Andrea Stradling, and Kevin Ying. Photo by John Dlugolecki.

The “Parker Family”: (Clockwise from top) Richard Van Slyke, Griffin Sanford, Andrea Stradling, and Kevin Ying. Photo by John Dlugolecki.

Now to my thoughts on the play itself. In case you’re not aware of the film, it’s really a series of colorful anecdotes about nine-year-old Ralphie Parker and his family leading up to Christmas, as opposed to one cohesive storyline. It’s all charming and humorous and familiar. For example, the little brother’s snow outfit is exactly how my mother dressed…all the time! It always makes me laugh in the movie and is even funnier in this play. Young Kevin Ying, as “Randy,” really sells it without overplaying it. And Henderson Nguyen as “Flick” does the tongue-stuck-to-the-pole bit perfectly!

By the way, the children and teacher are double-cast. We saw the “Mistletoe Cast,” so I highly recommend you do the same since I can’t vouch for the other one. [Note: Griffin Sanford, the “Ralphie” we saw, looks to be closer to fifteen than to nine, so just assume he’s younger and go with it. But I have a feeling he’ll be playing college kids before we know it!] Shockingly, (since my only prejudices in life are against Hari Krishna, Scientologists, and child actors!,) I liked all the kids in this show. The girls are adorable! (Yes, you read that right—there are girls in this one. They added some parts that aren’t in the film, but are in the book that the movie is based on. For example, the little girls, including a love interest, of sorts, and more scenes for the teacher. But where was the Toadie? I missed him!)

I have no pix of the teahcer, so enjoy this one of the Ugly Lamp Contest in the lobby. Photo by Karen Salkin.

I have no pix of the teahcer, so enjoy this one of the Ugly Lamp Contest in the lobby. Photo by Karen Salkin.

The absolute highlight of the show was the performance of Danon Dastague as the teacher, Miss Shields. That woman is a riot! So you should not miss her. (When you order your tickets, just check to see which nights she’s performing, if you have a choice of dates.)

In the film, the narrator, grown-up Ralphie, is never seen. So, at first, I was thrown by seeing him appear here, as an ever-present part of the show. But as time went on, I came to accept it, and then even appreciate him being there.

(L-R) Kevin Ying, Jackson Kendall, (as the grown-up Ralphie,) and Griffin Sanford.  (You know that I'm totally against firearms in life, but this one is comedically central to the story.)  Photo by John Dlugolecki.

(L-R) Kevin Ying, Jackson Kendall, (as the grown-up Ralphie,) and Griffin Sanford. (You know that I’m totally against firearms in life, but this one is comedically central to the story.) Photo by John Dlugolecki.

Mr. X enjoyed A Christmas Story so much that I have to share some of his thoughts on it with you. He pointed-out that it’s a “warm show” that “it grows on you as it goes along.” He lauded the “creative use of the space, as is always the case at Sierra Madre Playhouse,” along with the “nice, sweet general atmosphere” of the theatre. And he was very impressed with something most audience members don’t give even a thought to when it’s done right–all the tech work! (I.e. The cues being on time, the on-set lights looking like the actors are putting them on and off, the sound effects and music, etc. All of them are absolutely spot-on!)

My only one teensy-tiny issue with this production is that, as always, I’m not a fan of “diverse casting,” no matter how good an actor may be. In this case, having the little brother be Asian is confusing. If I didn’t know the story already, I would assume that a subplot of the scenario would be that he’s adopted, and in the 1940s, that would be a whole interesting tale unto itself! It’s just distracting. And I learned that Farkas, the big bully who constantly beats-up the other boys, is played in the alternate cast by…a girl! You know how into Girl Power I am, but that’s just wrong! It changes the whole meaning of what the author meant! [Note: Even worse is that in the upcoming TV special of the musical version of A Christmas Story, Maya Rudolph, who’s African-American, is playing the mother, who most definitely is supposed to be Caucasian. Why do producers and directors do these things? It seems to be only plays and musicals who specialize in this kind of casting; films and TV series do not, if ethnicity matters to the narrative.]

The "Holiday Wishes Through The Decades" display. Photo by Karen Salkin.

The “Holiday Wishes Through The Decades” display. Photo by Karen Salkin.

But outside of that, I’m in love with Sierra Madre Playhouse’s production of A Christmas Story! And I have every confidence that you will be, too! (Unless you’re a Grinch, but that’s another story. Oh, maybe they can do that one next year!)

One last note—they’re even doing a performance on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve! What a fun activity for that day! It’s fun for the whole family, or just with friends, or even alone—it will warm your soul that much. And, no matter where you’re coming from, there won’t be any traffic to fight at that time! If Mr. X and I hadn’t already seen the play, this is exactly how we would have opted to spend our New Year’s Eve.

A Christmas Story running through December 31, 2017
Sierra Madre Playhouse  87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd.  Sierra Madre  626-355-4318  www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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