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Spirit of Christmas Presents
By Kathryn Ceceri

A Christmas Story
By Phil Grecian, directed by Harry Lummis
Colonial Little Theatre, Johnstown, through Dec. 14

The 1983 movie A Christmas Story has always been different from other holiday-TV staples like It’s a Wonderful Life or The Waltons Christmas special, because it is, indeed, all about the toy. Based on humorist Jean Shepherd’s novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, it’s a story of boy wants gun (an official Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle with a compass and a thing that tells the time built right into the stock), boy pursues gun, boy gets gun. In between, we get what might be the most unvarnished look at American kid culture since Mark Twain.

It took a lot of jingle bells for author Phil Grecian to turn a cult classic into a play suitable for small community theaters like the Colonial Little Theatre, which is giving the work its regional debut. But CLT has managed to squeeze Ralphie’s entire two-story house, with all its doors and stairways, the backyard and the alley—not to mention the schoolyard, Christmas-tree lot and Goldblatt’s Department Store—onto its teeny-tiny stage, along with a generous helping of the original film’s charm.

Grecian’s version remains fairly true to the original, incorporating much of the dialogue and as many of the best scenes—the Major Award, the tongue on the frozen flagpole—as possible. Some of the throwaway business which makes the film seem so eerily real may be spelled out with a less subtle touch, and there’s a bit during the gun scene (warning kids not to try this at home) that sounds like it was added for liability, not dramatic, reasons, but for the most part the story and the rhythm it’s presented in are the same.

CLT’s production captures the film’s look of 1940s Middle America grittiness—sort of as if Edward Hopper were drawing the funnies—quite effectively through the use of props, color and costumes. Casting a show whose characters have become so familiar through repetition must have been daunting, but director Harry Lummis seems to have lucked out, especially with the crew of kids who are the show’s core. As 9-year-old Ralphie, Jeff D. Wood, if a tad nervous and rushed, held his own despite appearing in virtually every scene. (It was jolting to hear his dad, Jeff S. Wood, doing grown-up Ralph’s narration in tones far less dulcet than Shepard’s radio-smooth voice—but the shock didn’t last long.)

Ralphie’s Old Man, Shane Thompson, played the role Darren McGavin created with a pop-eyed belligerence that worked well. Lisa Vosburgh’s Mother seemed less sheepish and more edgy than Melinda Dillon’s movie mom, a change I thought made the character more believable.

Many of the funniest, sharpest moments in the show came from the minor players. Schuyler Engel as kid brother Randy (barely more than a snowsuit-bound sight gag in the original) stole the show with hardly a line of dialogue. Watching him eat his oatmeal while the rest of the scene played around him, it was clear he’s a natural-born comedian. But all the young actors were fun to watch. Several of them, including Siobhan K. Cornell, Jake Goldsmith and Jourdan Lummis, are already seasoned pros, and the experience showed. Among the adults, Lisa Weiderman as the children’s teacher, Miss Shields, and Dave Biltucci as Ralphie’s cowboy hero, Red Ryder (a character apparently invented for the stage version), each made their brief roles stand out.

The performance I attended featured the best intermission of all time: a buffet laid out with meatballs and red cabbage, turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, and Ovaltine and cookies (menu taken straight from the show), as well as a raffle and chance to get your picture taken with Santa. And the provisions came in handy; with an 8 PM curtain (8:30 on opening night, which coincided with the city’s annual Colonial Stroll) and a 25-minute intermission, the show ran close to three hours. That’s well past bedtime for what is otherwise a kid-friendly production, even one that celebrates the naughty and the nice like A Christmas Story.

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