BWW Review: It's Back...A CHRISTMAS STORY at the Cleveland Play House
(Member, Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association)
Yes, A CHRISTMAS STORY is again lighting up the stage at the Cleveland Play House. It's a new production, which incites new comments, but the history and my unexpected involvement in the tale is still the same!
Little did I realize as I stood many years ago, as an extra, in front of Higbee's Department Store in downtown Cleveland at 3 AM, that I was participating in the filming of what would become one of the most popular winter holiday movies of all times.
The filming was done in the middle of the night because in daytime, the Erieview Tower and Federal Building were visible from Public Square, as was the shell of the BP Tower that was under construction.
I also didn't know, as I stood on the stoop of a house a couple of doors down from 3159 West 11th Street, in the heart of Tremont, that the single sentence I spoke on camera, would wind up on the cutting room floor, eliminating my actual role in "A Christmas Story." Ah, show business, cruel show business!
Many locals think of "A Christmas Story" as "our" movie, a film made in Cleveland. They are only partially right. Our fair city was selected as the place to film the low budget flick because Cleveland, in the winter, has lots of snow. Right? Wrong! A freak of nature caused 1982 to be mild. Little snow. The movie mavens had to flood the scenes with fake snow. Finally, frustration set in and the powers that be moved the filming to Canada.
Before the flight across the lake took place, the now dubbed "The Official Christmas Story House" was used for external shots, including the footage of the stocking lamp in the front window. Interior scenes were shot on a sound stage. The actual house, after falling into disrepair, was bought and turned into a museum which displays rooms rebuilt to duplicate the images on the sound stage decorated with props from the film, as well as hundreds of rare, behind-the-scenes photos, which are now on display.
The house gets about 50,000 visitors a year. Across the street there is a gift store that sells such goodies as Lifebuoy soap, pink bunny suits and leg lamps.
Tipoff...the rifle used in the film was actually one of 6 specifically made for the movie as there was no actual Red Rider bb gun as described in the script. Author Jean Shepard combined the elements of other Daisy rifles to imagine the "Holy Grail" of Christmas presents. To make the whole idea more interesting, the models made for the film were designed to be used by a leftie, as Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie, was a southpaw. One of those rifles, thanks to a $10,000 eBay purchase by Brian Jones, who owns Christmas Story House and Museum, is now on display there! Also, you, and three other people of your choosing, can stay in the house for Christmas Eve and Christmas day if you win the auction on eBay! Last year's high bid was $6016.40. The proceeds go to charity. http://achristmasstoryhouse.com/index.php/christmas-stay-auction/
The interior of the beautiful Higbee's Department Store, now the home of the Horseshoe Casino, was actually used for "the visit to Santa" scene. Santa's house and slide, where Ralphie and his friends went to sit on the lap of the great-giver-of-gifts, which was built for the movie, was left in the store after the film crew departed. The slide was used every Christmas season from that time until the store closed in 2002.
The film, "A Christmas Story," was released in 1983. It takes place on Cleveland Street in Hohman, Indiana, in the 1940s. It centers on Ralphie, a 9 year-old boy whose goal in life is to have Santa bring him "an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time."
Ralphie and his best friends, Flick and Schwartz, try to negotiate life as tweens. A life filled with sophomoric wishes, eluding Scut Farkas, the neighborhood bully, putting up with Randy, Ralphie's younger brother, escaping the grasps of Esther Jane, who has a crush on our hero, and the need to convince every one in his life that he won't shoot out his eye with the sought after bb gun.
The tale is narrated through remembrances relayed by Ralph, the adult Ralphie. (In the film Ralph's voice was supplied by Jean Shepherd, the film's co-author.)
The stage version is filled with memorable lines from the film, including, "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine," "Daddy's gonna kill Ralphie!," "Only I didn't say 'Fudge.' I said the WORD, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the 'F-dash-dash-dash' word!," "Some men are Baptists, others Catholics, my father was an Oldsmobile man!," "Scut Farkus staring out at us with his yellow eyes. He had yellow eyes! SO HELP ME GOD, YELLOW EYES," "Aha, aha, it's a clinkerrrr!!! That blasted, stupid furnace. Dadgummit!." And, the never to be forgotten epithet by Flick before he succumbed to the "I TRIPLE-dog-dare you!" Yes, "Stick my tongue to that stupid pole, that's stupid."
Again this year, the Play House production is directed by John McCluggage. He follows the pattern he established in the past, so the pace, the images and the character development are basically parallel to former productions. So, as McCluggage states in his program notes, "I hope [it] is a show that is familiar and welcome."
Back are Christopher Gerson as the kind-hearted but harassable The Old Man, Madeleine Maby as the "June Cleaver" wise mother, Laura Perrotta as Miss Shields, the teacher whose alter ego is the Wicked Witch of the West, and the talented Jeff Talbott as the adult Ralph. Talbott gives a special appropriate child-like enthusiasm and sound of nostalgia to the role.
Standouts among the "new" kids in the cast are Willie Rose as the put-upon Flick, the victim of Scut Farkas, the neighborhood's yellow-eyed, evil bully and Miles Pierce, as Randy, Ralphie's younger brother whose plaintive wails of "I have to go wee-wee," are one of the show's highlights. Carter Sindelar is very believable as Ralphie whose longing for a bb gun that will surely shoot out his eye is heart-felt.
The other kids, Howey Nock (Schwartz), Henry Harte (Scut Farkas), Sun-Hee Smith(Helen) and Maela Mazzone (Esther Jane) are also fine, though projection is a problem as they aren't miked and don't have the big voices needed to project throughout the Allen auditorium.
Robert Mark Morgan's turntable set design worked well, but the Higbee's Santa house and slide, once again, are still flimsy and underwhelming. It looks nothing like the real Higbee's slide. If the show is done again, Morgan should do some homework, find a picture of the original, and duplicate it on stage.
James C. Swonger's sound design was outstanding. The audio special effects, especially the "clinkers" and "Bumpuses's dogs" were terrific.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: It's back! Once again CPH is presenting "A Christmas Story." This production, as has become the tradition, is a charming reenactment of the Jean Shepard story.
"A Christmas Story" runs through December 23, 2015 in the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.