BWW Review: Nashville Rep's A CHRISTMAS STORY

No matter how complicated life becomes or how overwrought with worry you may be, when the holiday season kicks off - with all the accompanying hoopla, added concerns about creating the perfect Christmas experience and a schedule already on overtime that now becomes overloaded with events and commitments - there are certain traditions that help to lighten the mood, immersing you in all manner of holiday cheer and yuletide revelry.

In a city like Nashville, where art and creativity thrives, there really is nothing more heartwarming and welcome at this time of year than the onstage theatrical traditions we have come to love, like Nashville Repertory Theatre's annual production of A Christmas Story, the stage iteration of the classic film version of writer Jean Shepherd's nostalgic memoir of his boyhood holidays in Indiana. With all the iconic imagery of that "major award" lamp shown off in the living room window, A Christmas Story is vividly reimagined onstage, capturing the film's most memorable moments in clever ways that are at once new and familiar.

Presented for the seventh time by Nashville Rep and directed by Rene Copeland, the company's producing artistic director, this year's version remains faithful to the show we've all come to love since 2009 - and, we are happy to report, scenic designer Gary C. Hoff's spectacular set is still resplendently presented, sure to sweep you up in a tide of holiday exuberance, in TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre - and the new cast, led by Derek Whittaker as young Ralphie, delivers the wonderfully sardonic and altogether entertaining story with enthusiasm and a sense of theatrical reverence that hews closely to the earlier productions we've reviewed with ardor and delight.

Copeland's seven-person cast is fresh-faced and eager to please, with stage veteran Bobby Wyckoff delivering a terrific performance as The Old Man, playing him with a sense of exasperation and fatherly bluster, and taking on the role of Ralphie's teacher Miss Shields with stylish finesse. I daresay I am not the only audience member to see flashes of Nashville theater icon Rona Carter in Wyckoff's performance as Miss Shields!

Whittaker's portrayal is finely tuned, yet somehow his Ralphie seems more mature than perhaps is expected; that's not a criticism so much as it is a response to his performance. There is no escaping the fact that Whittaker's Ralphie is a man reminiscing about his childhood in the golden glow of a holiday memory that still lives vibrantly and sentimentally in his heart. In fact, Whittaker's Ralphie seems not at all that different from The Glass Menagerie's Tom Wingfield, who recalls a much different Midwestern memory.

As Ralphie's mom, Megan Murphy Chambers shows off her wide-ranging skills to perfection, giving the story much of its heart as she gleefully commands the stage with confidence. Chambers exudes warmth throughout the show's two-plus hours that helps to underscore the script's sharp wit with a familiar sense of shared family stories and secrets.

Curtis Reed plays younger son Randy with a sense of childish abandon that allows you to suspend disbelief and to accept him as a kid who is the pickiest of eaters. Doing double duty as an hilariously red-wigged Little Orphan Annie (I half expected him to burst into "Tomorrow" at any given moment), Reed makes an impressive Nashville Rep debut.

The Parker family is given ample support by Patrick Waller (a veteran of earlier versions), Mikey Rosenbaum and Tony Nappo, who play everyone from Ralphie's circle of friends from school to the pack of hounds owned by the hillbilly neighbors next door, the Bumpuses. Waller's easy, laconic grace - paired with his ability to interact with the audience - seems ideally effortless and apropos of this particular Christmas tale. Rosenbaum's Flick is particularly charming, thanks in large part to the sense of wide-eyed wonder with which he approaches the role, while Nappo's winning portrayal of the dastardly Scut Farkas is made all the more impressive by the contrast of his turn as Esther Jane, Ralphie's crushing classmate.

Trish Clark's costumes - which include the pink bunny suit from Ralphie's doting aunt, who forever remembers him as a four-year-old girl - help the cast to effectively take on the characters of the piece with a sense of time and place, and Michael Barnett's lighting design helps to create an evocative picture of days gone by that live on in memory.

  • A Christmas Story. Adapted by Philip Grecian, from the motion picture by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark. Directed by Rene D. Copeland. Presented by Nashville Repertory Theatre at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre, Nashville. Through December 20. For details, go to www.nashvillerep.org. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis