BWW Review: A CHRISTMAS STORY at Landmark Community Theatre
There's arguably no better classic Christmas tale than that of A Christmas Story. Adapted from the movie of the same name, A Christmas Story, the play, is among the plays that have a unique challenge in which their source material is so well known that any given production has to balance making the story their own, but also paying homage to the movie that everyone already knows so well. This concept of the balance between recreating the original and establishing a unique production is shared with shows such as A Chorus Line, whose original Broadway choreography is usually passed down from production to production. The way that Landmark Community Theatre decided to walk that line was through the use of video. In terms of making this production their own, their continuously impressive sets and smart staging made this Christmas story feel truly nostalgic despite a couple of opening night 'clunkers,' as Mr. Parker would call them.
With a set design challenge such as building an entire house complete with space to include a classroom, mall, courtyard, and various outdoor locals, set designer Keith Winnegar took this challenge and ran with it; creating a two story home on the stage and utilizing Landmark Community Theatre's ample space downstage and off the proscenium to make one playing space feel like twenty different places. Off stage right, in front of the proscenium and above the Theatre's vintage organ, rests the Mall in which Ralph met Santa; upstage holds the living room and kitchen of the Parker home, complete with front door, basement door, and a staircase leading to the upstairs which holds Ralph's room and a hallway that leads to the "rest of the house." That leaves space downstage for all the remaining locations including, with clever use of on stage storage, a classroom complete with desks for both students and teacher. For the outdoor scenes, when there are no significant props or moveable set pieces to demarcate where they are, that is where Steve Blais's video content comes in.
When in a non-descript location, Blais leans on the source material and actually uses still shots from the movie to help the audience picture the scene: The alleyway where Ralph, Randy, and his friends meet the school bullies, the courtyard where Schwartz gets triple dog dared to lick the flagpole, and even Higbee's, their local department store. Scattering clips and screenshots throughout the show- including the leg lamp as seen from outside, to the Oldsmobile blowing its tire, and even the Chinese restaurant, Blais's use of footage from the source material was enough to make the story feel familiar to an audience who grew up on the movie as well as helping to establish location for those who might not know; a smart blend of nostalgia and practicality that served this production well. Another great use of video is in Ralph's imaginative visions; such as when he's talking to Red Ryder or protecting his family home from criminals, rather than attempting to establish the daydreams on the stage, the cast had recorded those scenes and rolled them through video while older Ralph- the narrator- looked on with fondness. Pairing the set and video together was a great use of space and technology.
Now, no opening night is without its clunkers. Tim Phillips, charged with playing the older Ralph as he looks back on what he considers to be the most important Christmas of his life, had the tough challenge of playing a narrator in a play whose source material relied heavily on narration as well. It's no surprise that during the opening minutes, Phillips found himself stumbling over lines, reversing a few words, and getting a little tripped up, but just like The Old Man's Oldsmobile needs time to warm up, Phillips didn't let a clunky opening slow him down; he warmed up, got back on the saddle, and rocked the rest of the show. His combination of narrative clarity and nostalgic glee kept the audience rooting for him as he took us on his journey. The rest of the ensemble clicked into their roles nicely and played up the contrast between their real lives and the campy way that Ralph remembers them as being, which constantly brought delight and chuckles from the audience.
Despite a bumpy start and a few light cues in which a spotlight turns on and then moves to its final destination- which wasn't really a problem, just something that this set of eyes was drawn to from his life beyond the pen- Landmark Community Theatre's production of A Christmas Story was a delightfully nostalgic trip down memory lane, offering a chance for an audience to see the classic tale in a new way. By blending movie elements with staged interpretations, the production felt to be both unique and honoring the source material that many audiences loved as a kid without dating itself. If you want to see A Christmas Story, the run continues Fridays and Saturdays @ 7pm and Sundays @ 2pm through December 22nd at Landmark Community Theater in Thomaston, CT.