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Familiar tale as comforting as Ovaltine

Adaptation of holiday film doesn't reach 'classic' status

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The Parker family, played by (from left) Sharon Bajer, Mackenzie Wojcik, Gordon Tanner and Ben McIntyre-Ridd, uncrate a major prize.

BRUCE MONK PHOTO Enlarge Image

The Parker family, played by (from left) Sharon Bajer, Mackenzie Wojcik, Gordon Tanner and Ben McIntyre-Ridd, uncrate a major prize.

In the warm-hearted stage version of A Christmas Story, an adult named Ralph Parker remembers the Christmas when all he wanted desperately was an "official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and this thing that tells time in the stock."

 

It takes place in 1938 in the fictional, all-American town of Hohman, Ind., where we find the modest Parker home at Christmas, sitting inside a snow globe that he's shaken and brought to life in nostalgic, Norman Rockwell detail for his audience.

Set designer Brian Perchaluk has created a perfect vision of a simpler time, when unforgettable Christmases were the less-than-perfect ones.

Kansas playwright Philip Grecian's memory play, which opened Thursday at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, faithfully follows the slender plotline of the popular 1983 MGM movie of the same name.

His wholesome, family-friendly version doesn't score a bull's-eye, but nor does it take anyone's eye out.

Fans of the voiceover-heavy film will be glad that Grecian retains the sardonic voice of Jean Shepherd, the radio raconteur whose semi-autobiographical tales were fused together into A Christmas Story. Shepherd didn't offer the sentimental goo so popular and painful this time of year, but a more authentic snapshot of the seasonal shenanigans that a child truly experiences in the frenzied run-up to Christmas -- the tears and the blood, the awe and the odd.

There are no silent nights, holy nights in the raucous Parker household, but they are a family that could rise together above their idiosyncratic dysfunction.

Employing a grown-up Ralphie as narrator comes at a steep price, as the 140-minute production, seen during a preview performance Wednesday, is sapped of much of its energy. Actor Rob McLaughlin plays the adult Everyman Ralph, offering running commentary but not taking part in the action. It creates awkward moments where the narrating character gets all the good lines while his younger self involved in the scene is silent. Grecian's structure grows tiresome, making us long to be told less and shown more.

A Christmas Story is mostly about the wily attempts by nine year-old Ralphie to persuade his parents to buy him that "official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and this thing that tells time in the stock." The obsessed young hero repeats it so many times, RMTC patrons will leave the theatre saying it to themselves.

Every time he mentions it, an adult responds the same way: "You'll shoot your eye out." That doesn't stop him from getting lost in his fantasies, including one in which he is a sharp-shooting rhinestone cowboy, saving his cowering family from bad guys (who are wielding squirt guns and rubber knives as a way of balancing the story's glorification of guns).

Director Robb Paterson replays all the iconic bits from the movie, including Ralphie's friend Flick licking a frozen pole; his dad winning the "major prize" of a kitschy lamp in the shape of a women's leg, swathed in fishnet stocking; and his run-ins with bully Scut Farkus.

Only the scene where the neighbour's dogs make off with the Christmas turkey -- several figures that look like people in the dark make off with the bird -- is disappointing.

Not so the cast, many of whom shone like the star atop the Parker Christmas tree. Gordon Tanner is a terrific Old Man, a flawed father whose eruptions of creative expletives and strange enthusiasm for his leg lamp mask a devotion to his family. As his good-natured but long-suffering wife, Sharon Bajer is the embodiment of a '50s housewife, obedient but knowing.

Ben McIntyre-Ridd, in his RMTC debut, offers a highly recognizable Ralphie, a bespectacled boy who can be impish and sweet, adorably scheming and his father's son.

Rounding out the family is Mackenzie Wojcik as kid brother Randy, who finds refuge from the daily mayhem by hiding out underneath the sink.

Jennifer Lyon is Ralphie's teacher, all propriety and patience until a brief but wild fantasy scene, in which she morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West with Bajer as her screeching flying monkey.

William Krovats is comically hapless Flick, who gives into a triple-dog-dare and licks the pole, while Tristan Mackid's Schwartz eggs him on. Daniel McIntyre-Ridd makes the most of the bully role Scut Farkas. (Grecian also added a couple of girl characters, most notably the darling Natalie Viebrock as Esther Jane, who has a crush on Ralphie.)

At yuletide, theatre-goers might ask for more from a piece like A Christmas Story but, unlike Ralphie, not all of us can be lucky enough to get what we want.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2013 D3

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