Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Near Jean Shepherd's Hammond, a Nice, Neighborly 'Christmas Story' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Christmas Story
a play based on the movie
by Philip Grecian
Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN
Thru December 27  

In late 2011, I saw A Christmas Story: The Musical at the Chicago Theatre and thoroughly enjoyed it

It was a fun and festive affair, with many great songs that dazzled on a first hearing and lent themselves to some terrific production numbers. Having seen several musicals adapted from popular movies, I found A Christmas Story to be among the better ones.

Thing is, at the time, I had never seen the widely beloved 1983 film.

Subsequently I did, and liked it, but few of the key moments surprised me, as they had been faithfully represented in the musical.

Still, I could see why the movie--based on stories by Jean Shepherd, who served as the "adult Ralphie" narrator (and was also one of three screenwriters)--is a holiday favorite.

The musical, which had played Chicago at the end of a national tour before running on Broadway, made it to the Great White Way for the 2012 holiday season, and returned to New York the next year.

It has not, to my knowledge, been back in the Chicagoland area, though Wikipedia notes that a number of regional productions have been mounted.

So when I was invited to attend the opening of A Christmas Story at Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana, I assumed I would be seeing a new staging of the musical I had so relished. And having learned that Jean Shepherd had grown up in Hammond, I figured there'd be something cool about seeing a work based on recollections of childhood spent less than 5 miles away.

Turns out, only half of this was true.

As I discovered less than an hour before leaving home on Sunday, in having looked at the Theatre at the Center website, the Munster production is not of the musical but rather A Christmas Story play written by Philip Grecian, based on the movie.

This wasn't as compelling a reason to shlep from Skokie to Munster for a Sunday night performance, but I had long since accepted an invitation for two, my mom & I had made concurrent plans to see my sister's family in the same NW Indiana town and my mother had never seen A Christmas Story in any form. (Only as means of partial explanation, I'll mention here that we're Jewish.)

And far be it from me to be Ebeneezer Scrooge, Mr. Potter, the Grinch or any other Christmas villain, as I'll cheerfully impart that TATC's staging of A Christmas Story is a perfectly pleasant affair.

It brought plenty of smiles and laughs, with a good cast and impressive stage set, and I have nothing specifically negative to say about it.

No, it doesn't equal the movie, isn't as good as the musical, doesn't constitute truly great theater and while it will undoubtedly bring pleasure to the thousands who see it--and I wish not to dissuade anyone so inclined--the play can hardly be considered essential viewing, especially if TBS runs the movie for 24 straight hours as it has in the past.

Oddly, while the late Jean Shepherd's name is used as that of the narrator in the musical, in Munster it is never mentioned onstage (even his hometown of Hammond is modified to Hohmand). I realize TATC likely secured the rights to a universally-employed script, but unless forbidden, mention of Shepherd even in an ad hoc introduction would seemingly have been apt.

But as it stands, Rod Thomas--who I've seen in many area shows, including Les Misérables and City of Angels this year--essentially plays the Shepherd part, and quite substantially at that. In serving as the adult Ralphie, not only does he narrate the play, his is the largest speaking role in it.

Thomas is good, although in never needing to use his terrific singing voice, my own disappointment that this wasn't the musical version was only amplified. (Although I should note that in the musical rendition I saw in 2011, another great Chicagoland musical theater vocalist, Gene Weygandt, did not sing in embodying the Jean Shepherd narrator.)

Most reading this likely know all the events of the movie far better than I, and for the few who don't I will reveal little so as not to ruin the movie nor this stage version, which my mom enjoyed at face value.

Suffice it to say, the story revolves adult Ralphie recalling how he had wished for a particular Christmas present in 1938, complemented by warm, often funny remembrances of his family & friends that holiday season (which are acted out onstage).

Along with Thomas, impressive work is done by the two other primary adults--John Lister and Linda Gillum as Ralphie's parents--and starting with Nate Becker as Ralphie, a host of kids make for an enjoyable production under the direction of Linda Fortunato.

Those seeking wholesome family holiday entertainment, live and in person, will certainly find it at A Christmas Story in Munster.

Whether it's worth theater ticket prices compared to catching the movie on TV is a call you'll have to make--and I'm still hoping the musical version will reappear somewhere down the line--but especially for NW Indiana residents who cherish this hometown tale, facilitating their presence could be a rather welcome gift.

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