BWW Review: Nashville Rep's Always Magical A CHRISTMAS STORY
Some grand holiday traditions are exactly what is needed in these turbulent times and nothing is more pleasing than the 2016 version of Nashville Repertory Theatre's live stage version of A Christmas Story, the theatrical treatment of the movie of the same name that somehow captures all the memories and nostalgia, all the laughter and mayhem of the holiday season. Directed with care by Nashville Rep's producing artistic director Rene D. Copeland, A Christmas Story continues to delight audiences at TPAC's AnDrew Johnson Theatre who, year after year, make their way downtown to be caught up in Jean Shepherd's recollections of his boyhood holidays in pre-World War II Indiana.
A significant hit for Nashville Rep when it premiered some eight years ago, A Christmas Story continues to draw crowds, wrapping them in a welcome blanket of holiday warmth that most likely recalls childhood memories of similar seasons for each and every audience member. Gary Hoff's remarkable set, which depicts the quaint hometown of Shepherd's fictional Parker family, remains every bit the perfect setting for all the myriad comic hijinks of Copeland's stellar ensemble of actors and immediately transports theater-goers to another time and place in the process.
With the film version of A Christmas Story such an enduring part of Christmas in America, the story is well-known and the movie's hilarious events are just as entertaining - perhaps even more so - when presented "live and onstage." Everything that stands out in memory from the film version is part of the stage production and with the immediacy of live theater, they seem to pack a bigger punch, a more sustained sense of wackiness pervading the surroundings.
But what really stands out when seeing the live show is the tremendous heart that fills Shepherd's tale of his growing up in a simpler, far more innocent time. Adapted by Phillip Grecian, from the motion picture screenplay that was written by Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark (he of Porky's fame), the stage version seems far more likely to tug at the heartstrings - your own reminiscences and memories seem to be much more vibrant when you are caught up in the action happening mere feet away from you - and to elicit a bigger emotional response, limned by incipient sentimentality and heaps of nostalgia borne from the story of young Ralphie Parker and his pursuit of an air rifle on Christmas morning.
What makes the Nashville Rep version so impressive, in addition to Copeland's dynamic staging and the physical trappings of this top-flight production, are the actors who breathe life into the script-bound characters who remain so vividly etched in one's mind thanks to repetitive viewings of the film, thanks to countless television broadcasts over the years. That Copeland's talented band of merrymakers can so effectively translate those characters into flesh-and-blood people right before your eyes is testimony to the stories told by the writers, but moreover it's due to the immensely talented ensemble of actors who fearlessly take up the challenge.
Derek Whittaker returns this year in the role of Ralphie, his soulful demeanor giving a new interpretation to the role of a nine-year-old boy enduring the day-to-day vagaries of childhood in a time just as fraught with change as kids today are facing. Whittaker is charged with the task of relating to the audience on an emotional level that is deceptively difficult: What looks easy and carefree requires much attention to detail and a never-say-die attitude that only a nine-year-old could possibly convey. Somehow, Whittaker (who is not nine-years-old, by a long shot) does that, creating an accessible Ralphie audiences cannot help but love.
As his family, Whittaker's Ralphie is surrounded by a talented triumvirate of actors who play his parents and little brother with ease: Megan Murphy Chambers returns as his long-suffering mother, the provider of meatloaf and red cabbage, the matriarch of the home who dispenses love and Lifebuoy soap as needed and who provides the home its ever-beating heart; Jack Chambers (Megan's real-life husband) makes his debut this season as "The Old Man," the family's designated head who spews forth all manner of salty language with a gruff sensibility that masks, however briefly, his tremendous affection for his wife and sons; and Curtis LeMoine completes the family picture as the weirdly endearing Randy, showing off the little boy's eccentricities to perfection and capturing his sense of wonder even while rocking back and forth and telling us he needs to "wee."
As Ralphie's best pals - Flick and Schwartz - Mikey Rosenbaum and Brett Cantrell seamlessly become important parts of the ensemble, playing a multitude of characters from the blasted Bumpus hounds from next door who wreak havoc every time the Old Man walks out the door (but no more so than on a Christmas morning rampage through the house) to various and sundry cowboys and ne'er-do-wells who populate Ralphie's imagination. They are aided and abetted at every turn by Antonio P. Nappo (Tony to his legions of friends and admirers), who stars as neighborhood bully and bad guy Scut Farkas, who rides roughshod over the boys, making every walk from home to school (and back again) an adventure in itself.
Here's a thought: Whenever Whittaker is ready to hang up the pink bunnysuit, we nominate Nappo to take up the challenge as Ralphie!
Together, the seven actors bring the story to life with extraordinary commitment and complete focus that ensures every audience member (even those not chosen to come up onstage and participate in the many festivities) is engaged and enthralled by their madcap antics. Copeland ensures that the play's action unfolds at a fast clip and Hoff, costume designer TrisH Clark, properties designer Evelyn Thornhill, lighting designer Michael Barnett and hair and wig designer Colleen Burns Garatoni make certain the actors have everything within their bag of theatrical tricks to create a sense of wonder and amazement.
There's nothing like the magic of live theater to inspire and delight, no matter the time of year or the season in which a play is set, but at Christmastime, the light of that magic seems to burn even brighter. Thus, you'll find no better way to capture the spirit of the season than with a trip to see Nashville Rep's A Christmas Story - this year or any year.
A Christmas Story. Written by Phillip Grecian, based on the motion picture by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark. Directed by Rene D. Copeland. Presented by Nashville Repertory Theatre at the AnDrew Johnson Theatre at Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Running through December 21. For details, go to www.nashvillerep.org. Running time: 2 and one-half hours (with one 15-minute intermission).