BWW Review: Nashville Rep's Holiday Tradition of A CHRISTMAS STORY Comes to a Fitting Close
When the final curtain falls on A Christmas Story at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre on December 22, the cast and crew of Nashville Repertory Theatre's production will pack up all the leg lamps and all the tinsel, Gary Hoff's gorgeous set will go into mothballs, the costumes will be stored away with the rest of the company's vast collection and a ten-year-old Nashville holiday tradition will come to an end.
As hard as it may be to believe, 2018 marks the tenth - and final - annual presentation of Nashville Repertory Theatre's A Christmas Story and we suspect artistic director Rene D. Copeland and her company of artists, actors, designers and technicians are feeling a bit reflective and nostalgic, even as they are ready to move on to something new and even if some audience members are reluctant to say goodbye.
For Tennesseans loath to bid farewell to a show that quickly became an eagerly anticipated Christmas season event after its initial run (which starred Sam Whited, Jeff Boyet, Jamie Farmer, Andy Kanies, David Wilkerson, Eric Pasto-Crosby and Shane Bridges - they were so good, it seemed a sacrilege to consider any other actors could take on the iconic roles with such ardor), it will no doubt be greeted with a mix of emotions, a blend of the happy and the sad that typifies all holiday celebrations. On the other hand, however, those theater aficionados eager to embrace another tradition are already looking forward to 2019, hopeful for what artistic director Copeland and her team have planned.
Until that closing date comes around, Nashville Rep's thoroughly delightful A Christmas Story runs for another three weeks - give or take a day or two - and business continues as usual in downtown Holman, Indiana, the setting for the stage adaptation of Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark's hilarious (and still amazingly popular) film, in which young Ralphie Parker and his kid brother Randy, their irascible dad - known with affection and deference as "the old man" - and their loving mom, along with friends Flick and Schwartz and neighborhood bully Scut Farkas (and all the other colorful characters who populate the town) commemorate the season and celebrate the holidays in grand style in the long since gone America, circa 1940.
Funny and ironic, acerbic and biting when it needs to be and all wrapped up in a brightly colored Christmas cloak of nostalgic recollection and holiday merriment, A Christmas Story for ten years has provided a respite from the vagaries and challenges of the real world, taking Nashville audiences on a sentimental journey to a time in which anything seemed possible and the world was seemingly awash in innocence, sustained by unbridled optimism and hopefulness. By all measures, 1940 provides the ideal time stamp for A Christmas Story - the last holiday season before Pearl Harbor brought to an end American isolationism and four long years of war changed the world irrevocably and ushered in "the future."
If we are feeling particularly sentimental or wistful about A Christmas Story - and honestly, if somewhat surprisingly, that's exactly how we're feeling as we write our final review of the show - we'd venture to guess we're having a hard time bidding farewell to the characters brought so vividly to life by a coterie of people whom we've come to admire and love over the years. Sure, we can (from now until the cows come home) watch the movie around-the-clock if we want, but a digital version seems lacking: the heart and the charm of Nashville Rep's stage production will continue to reverberate through our memory as we recall the artists who have become part of our extended family after a much longer span of time than a mere decade.
We're happy to report that the 2018 version of A Christmas Story is just as funny as ever and the story still carries a sublimely ridiculous and altogether appropriate impact. The Bumpas hounds are still making mischief and chasing after the old man, Flick continues to stick his tongue to a frozen flagpole, Ralphie still looks a sight in that pink bunny costume his aunt sent, and he very nearly shoots his eye out with a Red Ryder Carbiine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with that thing which tells time in the stock. And the old man (played so convincingly by Jack Chambers, who follows in the stellar and auspicious line of Jeff Boyet, David Compton and Bobby Wyckoff to take on the role) still spews forth a string of expletives that sound nothing like it does in real life, but still makes you laugh abundantly and very loudly.
The 2018 cast - like the nine other ensembles taking the stage before them in an intriguing blend of actors that only happens when a director as confident as Copeland (or Lauren Shouse, who took the reins a few times over the years) and as practiced in theatrical alchemy as she, is in charge of the casting - is pretty darn swell.
Derek Whittaker leads the ensemble in the central role of Ralphie and the versatile actor is as believable as ever, playing both a man in his 50s and as a fourth grader at Holman Elementary, with his adroit delivery and ample stage magic. Andy Kanies returns for the seventh time to play his little brother, Randy, who still grunts like a piggy while littering the family kitchen with oatmeal and good humor. Chambers is on hand for his third run as the family patriarch, who remains as certain as ever that this will be the year he will win a major award from one of the countless contests he enters. The luminous Megan Murphy Chambers, who makes every script better with her unique interpretation, returns as the boys' doting mom and, as expected, uses her tremendous stage presence and impeccable timing to command the stage in every scene (truth be told, it's her performance in A Christmas Story that I will miss most of all). Brent Cantrell is back as Ralphie's pal Schwartz for the third laugh-filled year, while Zack McCann makes his Nashville Rep debut as Flick (be careful, that's his sore arm you just punched) and Sawyer McCoy Wallace takes on the role of Scut Farkas (and Esther Jane, the girl who crushes on Ralphie so engagingly) with equal measures of menacing hilarity and heart.
Like every other cast before them, 2018's A Christmas Story team delivers the goods in high style, breathing life into their characters to guarantee a good time will be had by all those people gathered in Johnson Theatre to be whisked away to 1940. Copeland's direction keeps the action moving along at a brisk pace and, with great subtlety, she changes things up just enough to ensure that this year's show is different from the 2017 version.
In order to get a fresh perspective on A Christmas Story, I took a quartet of friends (who inexplicably had never seen the Nashville Rep version) to experience the show for the first time. I asked them to join me in order to find out how the show translates to newcomers and, perhaps, to have them surreptitiously write my review for me (which sounded rather easy and sort of fun, truth be told). But once I started writing, I realized I couldn't let such an auspicious occasion get past me without adding a few choice words of my own.
At any rate, here's what four A Christmas Story newbies have to say:
"Having seen the film version of this show probably 25 times (no kidding!), I was excited to get the chance to see the live version. The actors did a great job of making the audience feel included in all the action, even allowing us to channel our inner child with sound effects. (Some of us may have enjoyed that more than others!) My favorite scene was the leg lamp ballet, thanks to the fantastic facial expressions of the entire cast," Aurora wrote.
Another friend told me: "The story was well presented with lots of humorous elements and yet the more serious underlying themes [of family and tradition] didn't get lost."
"I was sad to hear the production of the play is ending," added yet another, "as I think there are thousands that have not seen it. Unfortunately, even good holiday traditions seem to run their course."
And, finally, my friend Thomas wrote: "The ability to repeat the same thing countless times and not get tired of doing it and to have an obvious passion for something is such a childlike quality," he said. "It's nice to be reminded of that and I liked the playful way - with the audience taking part by providing sound effects and being included in the show - the cast made us a part of the show. We weren't just being entertained. It feels good to join in the fun."
There you have it: my final review of Nashville Rep's A Christmas Story. Perhaps your own Christmastime adventure with Rene, Ralphie and all the gang of very merry mischief-makers is in order. Happy Holidays!
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 Theatre at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through December 22. For details, go to www.nashvillerep.org or call (615) 782-4040 for tickets. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).