Review: A CHRISTMAS STORY Is A Perfect Salty Cookie at Pittsburgh Public Theater

Pittsburgh Public's Christmas treat runs through December 23rd

By: Dec. 09, 2022
Review: A CHRISTMAS STORY Is A Perfect Salty Cookie at Pittsburgh Public Theater
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When it comes to seasonal entertainment traditions, I am a devout Rocky Horror man. I have been in The Rocky Horror Show, both live and in shadowcast productions, for nearly twenty years, playing almost every male role and once understudy-running one of the female ones too. It's a Halloween tradition despite not only not mentioning Halloween, but being explicitly set NOT at Halloween. Still, there's nothing like it: the farcical plot, the mix of realistic and campy acting styles, the music, and of course the audience participation. If your Rocky Horror isn't engaging with the back-and-forth interplay with the audience, they're missing the boat. I've often wondered why Rocky Horror is the only Rocky Horror like phenomenon... and then I discovered that Rocky Horror is just the sole American success in the British theatrical style of panto. Panto is silly, farcical, joyfully stupid, intentionally unrealistic, nostalgic, playfully risque and calibrated for children and adults at the same time.

While Philip Grecian's stage adaptation of the classic film/pop culture artifact A Christmas Story does not actively include audience participation the way Rocky Horror and panto do, it comes very close. Almost every American with any love of Christmas is familiar with the holiday writings of Jean Shepherd, and Ralphie Parker has become the Everyman of American childhood despite existing in a moment in time nearly a century removed now. There's no call and response, no throwing of props, and only SOME audience dressup (I caught a few pink bunny suits at the opening night performance), but the show already exists without a fourth wall, thanks to narrator John Shepard (no relation) as Jean Shepherd/"Ralph" perpetually interacting directly with the audience.

It's the greatest story ever told: Great Depression baby Ralphie Parker (Sebastian Madoni) wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, despite warnings from his mother (Jamie Agnello) that he will invariably shoot his eye out. He and kid brother Randy (Will Chambers) labor their way through a typical postwar Christmas season while weathering school bullies (Eamonn McElfresh) and the mercurial desires of teacher (Miss) Shields (Hope M. Anthony) and family patriarch The Old Man (Tim McGeever). The usual chaos ensues: leg lamps, bunny costumes, visits to Santa and Christmas turkey demolition.

What we're dealing with here is not, technically speaking, high art. And the classic film itself, like Jean Shepherd's radio show, has a meandering, poky feel to it that has only been exacerbated in the public consciousness by the TBS marathon, in which the movie is further stretched and slowed by constant commercial breaks. Luckily, director Michael Beresse has staged the show not as a recreation of the film's tone and pace, but as something frenzied and farcical. This is a faster, longer, weirder Christmas Story in the best way possible, embracing the bizarre elements in a kid's eye view of Christmas and family life. Grecian's script additionally incorporates elements from Shepherd's writing not included in the film, and broadens the scope of the classroom ecosystem to include not just the usual quirky boys Flick and Schwartz (Colin Bozick and Charlie Julian Stull) but the equally unusual girls: unflappably perfect Helen Weathers (Zora Rose, doing some excellent deadpan) and weird girl with a crush Ester Jane (Suraya Love Collins). Ester Jane's charater has seemingly absorbed some of the strange "Wizard of Oz Kid" from the film, likely because the play did not have the rights to The Wizard of Oz the way the movie did.

The kids are great, but this is a show that belongs to its quartet of adults. John Shepard's Jean Shepherd thankfully never veers into impersonation of the film's narrator and his signature Garfield-like delivery. Instead, he's a charming raconteur of his own, delivering his reminiscences with an off-the-cuff quality that makes them feel spontaneous, almost improvised. In a number of other small roles, most notably a cowboy, Shepard also gets to flex some broader comedic muscles. Hope M. Anthony's (Miss) Shields forever teeters between realism and absurdity, given how often the character appears in Ralphie's movie-melodrama daydreams as either heroine or villain. Tim McGeever, as the Old Man, chews the scenery with palpable pleasure. He's a less gruff and cantankerous father figure than Darren McGavin was, and there's a clear sense of the child still alive in the man here. (McGeever also plays a number of additional roles as a pre-recorded voice, including Santa Claus and a whole bevvy of next-door neighbors.) He and Jamie Agnello play wonderfully together, with Agnello's love of mischief slightly more hidden than McGeever's out-and-out silliness. When Agnello gets a chance to pop off, instead of just being the straight man in the relationship, it's ON. The highlight of the evening is a wordless farcical chase sequence set to "The Nutcracker Suite," involving the leg lamp, a sandwich and a jar of pickles. Agnello's physical comedy performance is I Love Lucy worthy.

There will always be those who say A Christmas Story is stupid, that it gratifies the worst human impulses, that it's amoral or even nihilistic in its focus on consumerism and childhood greed... but those people are Grinches who miss the point. Ralphie wants the BB gun obsessively, like all kids and most adults covet their ideal gift. But what he really comes to treasure, at least in hindsight, is the love of his family. It's the leg lamp and the Christmas dinner he remembers most glowingly, not his anticlimactic experience with the gun. If there really is a Santa Claus, this wild and wacky production will become a yearly institution.


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