BWW Review: Nashville Rep's Annual A CHRISTMAS STORY Ushers in the Holiday Season
Nashville audiences love their traditions - whether they be of a theatrical bent or of a more personal nature - so it should be noted that the holiday season in Music City is now upon us with the arrival of one of the most beloved theater traditions: Nashville Repertory Theatre's annual staging of A Christmas Story (the tale of young Ralphie, his long-suffering mother, his old man and his younger brother Randy), which offers up a timeless tale of Christmas in the heartland that is overflowing with nostalgia and a whole lot of heart. And with Nashville Ballet unveiling its 2017 model of Nashville's Nutcracker, we can certainly say the season is upon us and the number of shopping days until the ultimate day are quickly dwindling away.
Of course, any sentient being is aware of the appeal of A Christmas Story: the movie of the same name is a seasonal favorite (in fact, come Christmas Eve it will be televised for 24 hours straight to accompany many a homebound holiday celebration), the musical version that garnered Tony Award nominations is being mounted as a televised event on FOX and around the country, regional and community theaters are offering up their own versions of the play, adapted by Philip Grecian from the screenplay by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark.
First produced some nine years ago by the Rep, A Christmas Story each year draws large audiences to TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre for a heaping helping of holiday sentimentality leavened by humor that ensures its appeal to audiences of all ages and staged in such a way that you'll realize the show is just as entertaining when performed live in front of your very eyes as it is on your DVR.
Rene Copeland, Nashville Rep's artistic director, again takes up the challenge of somehow creating a stage rendition of A Christmas Story that hews closely to what audiences have come to expect year after year, but somewhat surprisingly, astute and observant audience members will take note of some changes in blocking and what we like to refer to as "the rhythm" of the play to entice and delight. These updates are subtle, to be certain, but nonetheless they help to refresh the show and to keep the people sitting out in the dark engaged in the goings-on in the small Indiana town in 1940 that provides the ideal backdrop for the tale.
Veteran Nashville actor Derek Whittaker once again dons the pink bunny suit and glasses to P.A. Young Ralphie, performing confidently throughout the fast-moving comedy with an ease that befits his talents and experience. His delivery of Ralphie's lines is inspired, but it is his narration that helps to set every scene evocatively in the minds of his audience that really gives him the opportunity to show those things of which his career is justifiably made.
Whittaker is joined in the traditional family portrait by Jack Chambers and Megan Murphy Chambers, whose real-life marriage ensures their onstage antics and fictional relationship resonate deeply and more authentically. Chambers seems far more sure-footed in the 2017 production, taking on the mantle of Ralphie's old man, cursing and swearing with farcical abandon - in the process, he proves himself a worthy successor to the actors who played the role before him, including Jeff Boyette, David Compton and Bobby Wyckoff, a trio of Nashville's most beloved actors. And if there is a more adept comedian than Megan Murphy Chambers - who's had quite the year in theater in 2017 - we clamor for an introduction. She is one of the finest actors to ever set foot on a stage anytime, anywhere, and local audiences should thank their lucky stars she walks among us.
Curtis Lemoine is back as Randy, the younger brother who loves to play with his food and do some really weird stuff while onstage, infusing his character with much charm and playing him to the absolute hilt. Lemoine's Randy may threaten to steal the show in virtually every scene, but the actor portraying him ensures he remains part of the quirky clan at the center of the tale - and he makes for an adorable Annie Warbucks and, interestingly, that frozen flagpole on the frigid school grounds that plays such an important role in the story of the supporting players.
Mikey Rosenbaum, Brett Cantrell and Antonio P. Nappo return as the trio of classmates who make life more interesting, as well as playing any number of characters who populate the story. They interact with the audience throughout, helping to create an immersive atmosphere in Johnson Theatre that ensures audiences will continue to buy tickets year after year to be transported to a simpler time before Christmas became the province of mass marketers and advertising execs.
Gary C. Hoff's scenic design, which encompasses all of Hohman, Indiana, in 1940 (the play's pre-World War Two setting is an important thing to note because it reminds you of times more innocent and less worldly than the years thereafter), is as eye-poppingly gorgeous as ever and provides the ideal backdrop for the raucous onstage cavorting. Trish Clark's costumes are terrific recreations of period fashion and Michael Barnett's lighting design ensures everything is bathed in a particularly festive glow.
Copeland's direction keeps the onstage action flowing at a good pace, ensuring that audiences are back to their offstage - and sometimes "too real" - lives in quick order, filled with the holiday spirit and recalling favorite moments from the theater staging that helps to illuminate their own existences and to remind them of what Christmas is all about: Being surrounded by the warmth that only a loving family (and whatever vision that phrase may mean to you) can provide.
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 Andrew Johnson Theater at Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Go to www.nashvillerep.org for details and ticket information. Through December 22. Running time: 2 and one-half hours (with one 15-minute intermission).