There are certain elements of a show which are sure-fire crowd pleasers: a beloved story, preferably with a holiday theme, and a cast that includes cute kids.
Based on the loud applause, the audience filled with families, and the raves I heard expressed when leaving the Woodland Opera House following its current production of “A Christmas Story,” by Philip Grecian, based on the stories of Jean Shepherd, this show is indeed a real crowd pleaser.
Unfortunately, it’s possible to be a crowd pleaser in spite of problems with the production.
The problems begin at the beginning with the narration of William Powers as the adult Ralph, who is remembering a very special childhood Christmas. Powers had difficulty with his lines throughout the show, often stumbling over them, repeating, them, or seeming to forget them. He improved significantly as the show progressed, but even when he did remember his lines, his delivery seemed stilted.
As the adult Ralph narrates, we follow the young Ralphie Parker (Drew Thomsen), the boy whose one dream for Christmas was an official, Red Ryder, Carbine-action, 200-Shot, Range Model, Air Rifle. Ralphie fantasizes meetings with Red Ryder himself and campaigns to convince his parents to get him the rifle for Christmas, though his mother (Jeannie Pytel) poo-poo’s the idea with every mother’s perennial excuse, “You’ll put your eye out.”
Drew Thomsen certainly looks the part. With his big glasses and innocent expression, you feel the boy’s longing for the perfect Christmas present. Unfortunately much of his dialogue was unintelligible as he tended to rush his lines. I also blame director Bobby Grainger for the failure of what should have been one of the biggest scenes in the play. We have watched Ralphie go through hopes, prayers, and all sorts of tricks to convince his parents that he should be given the wonderful rifle. Yet, when he has given up all hope of receiving it, and then opens the box which contains the rifle he desires so strongly, he is expressionless. There is no surprise, no excitement, no joy, no nothing. One of the biggest anti-climactic moments you’re likely to see on a stage. Having seen what Thomsen can do in his Elly-nominated performance in “Boxcar Children,” I know he is capable of much better.
Most of the rest of the children in the cast are from one family. William Black plays Randy, Ralphie’s little brother who likes to hide under or behind furniture. When his mother dresses him up to go outside, he looks like a character out of South Park.
Emma Black is Schwartz, friend and classmate of Ralphie. Since Schwartz is never out of jacket and cap, it’s not obvious that the actor is actually a girl and she plays a convincing boy.
Sara Black is Esther Jane Alberry, who has a crush on Ralphie. She’s adorable and succeeds in communicating much without saying much.
Jordan Black is the bully Scut Farkas. Her height gives the perfect size differential to make her convincing as a bully, and I always thought the career path she follows (which we learn from the narrator) seems ideally suited to someone who grew up as a bully!
The last two children in the cast are Sam Kyser as Flick, who makes a memorable image getting his tongue stuck to the icy metal pole in the school yard, and Jocylyn Favors as Helen, another classmate.
Mark Fejta is “The Old Man,” Ralphie’s father, and is very funny. He has some nice physical shtik and does it well. Jeannie Pytel plays an typical 50s wife, who lets her husband take the limelight, but who is really the central figure in the family. The parents’ various scenes in Ralphie’s fantasy are particularly good.
Regina Stafford plays Ralphie’s teacher who does a fabulous Margaret Hamilton impression in one scene.
The Act 2 visit to Santa scene may have been one of the best in the show and the setting for it was very imaginative.
Jeff Kean and Doug Keowen have created a fun set with indoor and outdoor scenes ingeniously designed.
I wish that this had been a better production since so many elements were good, but when pulled together just didn’t work as well as it should have, though the improvement in Act 2 gives hope for a better Act 1 in future performances.