BWW Reviews: San Antonio's Woodlawn Theatre Tells Familiar But Charming CHRISTMAS STORY
Lots of us have one Christmas movie that is a perennial favorite which we must revisit every year. For some it's Miracle on 34th Street. For others it's It's a Wonderful Life. For practically no one it's Jingle All the Way starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And for any child of the 80s, it's probably A Christmas Story, the neo-classic film based on the books and essays of Jean Shepherd, which follows young Ralphie Parker in his quest to receive a Red Ryder B.B. Gun for Christmas. This holiday season, San Antonio's Woodlawn Theatre offers a pleasant, charming, and sweet stage adaptation of the film which reverently preserves most of the films memorable moments while improving upon others.
The play-adapted by Philip Grecian from the screenplay by Leigh Brown, Bob Clark, and Jean Shepherd-follows the same plot about 9-year-old Ralphie (Cutter Grant) and his family's Christmas in 1940s Indiana. Though Ralphie's eyes, we get a glimpse into Christmas, family, and "kiddom" in 1940s America. Both the film and the stage version are narrated by an older Ralphie, though while the film's narrator is never seen, the stage version's older Ralphie (Benjamin Scharff) is almost constantly present on stage and interacts with the other characters, especially his younger self. Transitioning the off-stage film narrator into a fully realized and physicalized character is one of the small but welcome changes between the two versions, as is the addition of a love interest for Ralphie. While it's clear that Grecian respects and admires the film's witty screenplay (almost all of your favorite lines and moments are intact), his approach to the time, the place, and the characters has a freshness about it.
Greg Hinojosa's direction seems perfectly paired to the material. He creates nuance and variances between the real-life scenes and Ralphie's many fantasy sequences, giving the dream sequences the same melodramatic quality of Ralphie's favorite comic books. But moreover, he understands that this is not just a simple Christmas play. It's a family comedy that happens to take place during the holidays. As such, Hinojosa puts equal emphasis on the characters and the season. I also have to applaud Hinojosa's smart move to add some pre-show caroling in the lobby, courtesy of the show's younger cast members.
Thankfully, the strength of the creative team doesn't stop with Hinojosa. Angela Hoeffler's costumes are full of period appropriate slacks, dresses, and argyle sweaters. Jan Bowley's lighting design is whimsical and enchanting, particularly during Ralphie's daydreams. And Kurt Wehner, as Set Designer and Sound Designer, proves to be a wizard at both. His double level set of the Parker's home is comfortable but cozy, and his handling of the play's need for several other locations (a classroom, an Oldsmobile, a department store Santa display, a flagpole) is simple but effective. But it is his sound design that is really impressive. The show, like the film, has plenty of sound effect and music cues, and all of them add to the story. Major kudos as well for fixing some of the major sound issues in the Woodlawn.
Yet it is the cast that makes A Christmas Story truly magical and memorable. The entire cast is spectacular. Sara Larson Eljemli is loads of fun as the lovable but somewhat stern school-teacher, Miss Shields, Theresa Bishop is delightful as Mother, and Bob Galindo is a side-splitter as the cantankerous, always cursing Old Man. All three are perfect in their roles and really pop when they get to play with the over-the-top fantasy scenes. But among the adult actors, it's really Benjamin Scharff that carries the show. While the film's narrator (writer Jean Shepherd himself) is a bit dry in his delivery, Scharff's version is full of enthusiasm, wonder, and childlike delight which mirrors that of younger Ralphie's. It's a great departure from the film's narrator, but it works completely. You can't help but love older Ralphie.
Still, even with the immense talent of the adult cast, it's the kids that truly steal the show. As the play's villain, Scut Farkas, Diego Martinez is one of the best menacing bullies I've ever seen. Taylor Novack gets plenty of laughs as brainiac/tough girl Helen Weathers, and Cayla Ramierez is adorable as Esther Jane, the little girl with a big crush on Ralphie. As Ralphie's best friends, Christian Tinajero and Clayton Anderson are fantastic with Anderson having some of the show's best moments as the town wuss, Flick. Jack Dullnig is super cute as Ralphie's kid brother, Randy, a kid who constantly needs to go "wee-wee" and whose idea of a good time is hiding behind furniture. And Cutter Grant is remarkable as Young Ralphie. He's a real-life Charlie Brown. You want this guy to win, despite his flaws and manipulative nature. To top it off Grant's facial expressions in key scenes, such as the infamous "fudge" scene, are priceless.