By Mary Beth Casper
Holiday stress got you down? Do you want to fall in love with this special season all over again?
If so, head over to the John W. Engeman Theater to catch a performance of “A Christmas Story: The Musical.” It will make you feel good about the holidays again.
Based on the popular l983 film of the same name – which was based on the hilarious, heart-felt stories of legendary radio personality, Jean Shepherd – the theatrical production is perfect for audiences of all ages.
The story takes place in a small town in Indiana in l940 – just weeks shy of Christmas. The play's narrator, Jean Shepherd, played with warmth and humor by David Schmittou, explains to the audience that he is eager to tell a story about his favorite Christmas of all times. That holiday was all about little Ralphie Parker and his family – (Could Ralphie actually be Shepherd?) – as they got ready to celebrate the holidays at a time when America had yet to enter World War II and the Depression still had a hold on the nation.
Ralphie and his little brother, Randy (Griffin Reese), are oblivious to the financial challenges their parents face. It was a kinder, gentler time in America. An era when children did not curse – or, if they did, they found themselves undergoing the horror of having their mouths washed out with soap – it was also an era when moms stayed home to care for their kids and dads were usually the sole breadwinners in the family. No TV, no video games. Just the radio for home entertainment, as well as hours and hours of imaginative childhood play.
Act One opens less than a month before Christmas, and little Ralphie Parker is determined to wear down his parents with his unpopular choice of a Christmas present. All Ralphie wants is a bee bee gun. Not just any bee bee gun, but “an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle.” He'll stop at nothing until he's assured it will be under his tree on Christmas morning. Unfortunately, his parents think it's an unwise choice. “You'll shoot your eye out,” he's constantly told every time he approaches the subject.
With a vivid imagination and spunky optimism, Ralphie spends every waking hour trying to ensure holiday success!
This production shines with the performances of a remarkable cast. Director Richard T. Dolce has beautifully guided his ensemble of children and adults allowing them to capture the simple and magical quality of l940s America. The actors are delightful. The singing and dancing are equally solid. Credit choreographer Antoniette DiPietropolo and Music Director Jonathon Lynch for taking a lackluster score (oh, no, you won't remember a single tune when you leave the theater) and turning it into a delightful romp that mesmerized the audience.
The set design by Jonathan Collins and the costumes by Tristan Raines are spot-on replicas of the pre-World War II era.
This is essentially Ralphie's story and LI professional actor Ethan Eisenberg is a delight to watch. Wearing a pair of over-sized eye-glasses, Ralphie and little brother, Randy, delightfully played by Reese, and their friends are self-proclaimed “wimps,” always being threatened by the neighborhood bullies. Eisenberg takes center stage from the get goes and never relinquishes his starring role. He has a great stage presence. Boy, can he sing and dance! And, what great comedic timing he has.
He envisions himself in all types of situations in which a gun will come in handy to protect his family, his neighborhood, his classmates and teacher. Some of the most outstanding moments of the evening come in the musical numbers in which he and his fellow students and Miss Shields (the comedic talent, Kathryn Markey), are part of his dreamy efforts to write a winning essay titled “What I Want for Christmas” that Ralphie believes will win him an “A + + + + + + +” and convince his parents that he must have the gun. In reality, none of the hero antics he imagined (rescuing his teacher from a villain who tied her up on a railroad track or deterring a bank robbery and saving the lives of tellers and bank patrons), ever make it into the essay. All the child is able to write is the often repeated mantra which is the description of the gun he wants.
Anyone who has ever seen the film version of this play knows there are several subplots that are equally fun for the audience. The children's father, “Old Man Parker” is an ornery, over-worked, under-paid guy who dreams of a better life for himself and his family. When not alienating his neighbors for their inability to keep their dogs off his property, Mr. Parker is also the angry owner of an old house with a furnace that is always on the fritz. Parker dreams of winning $50 thousand in a national Crosswords Puzzle Sweepstakes. His efforts are bolstered by his wife, who really appears to be the “brains” of the family.
When he does win a prize, it’s not a financial one, but rather a hideous lamp. The base of the lamp is a shapely woman's calf encased in black fishnet stockings and a patent leather stiletto pump. The Old Man is delighted with the prize, treating it like a trophy. To his wife's dismay he places it in the home's front window for all passersby to see.
One of the show-stopping productions of the night featured the horror of neighborhood ladies and the delight of their husbands in response to the Parker's lamp. The men, wearing black fishnets and patent leather pumps, formed a Rockette-styled chorus line and high-kicked their way into the audiences hearts.
Of course, no production of “A Christmas Story” would be complete without the classic tongue stuck on the flag pole moment that occurred in the film. During a cold recess, Ralphie's friend Flint is encouraged to put his tongue on the freezing flag pole and see if it sticks. The results brought the house down.
What makes “A Christmas Story” so successful is not just the humor of Ralphie's tactics, nor his father's obsession with the hideous leg lamp. The play gently reminds us of the love and care good parents give their children.
Gina Milo, who delighted Engeman audiences in “Plaza Suite” this summer, truly is the heart and soul of this production. Whether finding a creative way to get her fussy youngest son to eat his meals, or providing emotional support to Ralphie when he finally gives one of the school's biggest bullies a run for his money, Milo's solid acting and beautiful singing voice won major applause throughout the show.
A Christmas Story The Musical runs through Jan. 4, 2015. For ticket information visit www.EngemanTheatre.com or call 631-261-2900.