POSTED ON NOVEMBER 21, 2012:
Red Ryder in Live Theatre
Classic Christmas movie takes center stage
You know what he wants. We all do. Say it with me.
"I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!"
And you know why he can't have it. We all do. Say it with me.
"You'll shoot your eye out, kid."
Little Ralphie undertakes his near-Sisyphean quest for the ultimate toy in Encore! Theatre Arts' upcoming stage production of the holiday classic A Christmas Story, and he does so with a large cast of a wide variety of ages.
"There's Ralphie and Randy and a lot of school kids," said director (and ETA artistic director) Joshua Branson Barker. "And there's Mrs. Shield the teacher, the old man, and there's also the tree lot salesman. It's kind of half and half between youth and adults. "And there's the narrator who's the older Ralph."
That older Ralph is a departure from the 1983 film in which the grown-up version of the air rifle-loving protagonist is only heard.
"We actually have an actor who's narrating the whole story," Barker said. "We're portraying it like it's his house when he's older and he's reminiscing about his past Christmases. He's interacting with the characters from his past."
However, the stars of the story are the kids. And while there's that old show business saying that goes something like, "Never work with kids or animals," Barker doesn't seem to agree. Well, who knows about the animals part, but he hasn't voiced any discomfort with the kids part of this endeavor.
"It's actually, in a way, a lot easier directing kids. They're much more open-minded, and they're not set in performing a certain way," he said. "Young minds soak up a lot more, they learn more quickly, they take direction really well, and they don't second-guess you." Any parent who's been second-guessed by a kid (which is to say any parent that has ever drawn breath) can attest to how nice it is when they don't. Second-guess, that is. Not draw breath. Then again, it might depend on the kid in question. But I digress.
Making up the younger part of this cast is a group of kids from all over the spectrum of theatrical experience, according to the director.
COURTESY/ENCORE THEATRE ARTS
"There's a variety. We have a few kids making their stage debuts in this production," Barker said. "The kid playing Randy -- this is his first play ever. And then there's our Ralphie. He's only nine, but he's experienced. He's been in six of our shows, I think," Barker said.
Not wanting to leave out the poor, oft-overlooked adults in this particular show, Barker gave a nod to the variety of experience there too, which mirrors that of the cast of kids.
"And with the adults, we have a variety, too -- people who are newer to this, as well as more experienced actors," he said.
Choosing A Christmas Story as your theatre company's Christmas production is kind of a no-brainer. Barker said that pretty much everyone knows this story.
You all know this movie, don't you? If not, you may have your citizenship revoked. Just saying.
"One big reason we chose this show is that it's a family classic that everyone grew up seeing," Barker said. But he went on to say that it's not just that everyone's seen the movie.
"I think everyone can relate to it. Pretty much everybody has one Christmas that sticks out in their mind as the best Christmas ever, or when they got that one toy they really wanted," he said. "I think it helps us as adults remember what that was like."
One potentially thorny issue a director encounters when doing a familiar work revolves around the expectations of the audience. For instance, nobody wants to go see a production of A Few Good Men in which the Jack Nicholson character doesn't shout, "You can't handle the truth!" The iconic line just doesn't work when an actor chooses to say it calmly. We expect the Nicholsonian outburst. So you can't change too much.
"We try to stay true to the movie," Barker said. "It has all the classic scenes and the classic lines that everyone knows -- the leg lamp, the tongue stuck on the pole."
That said, in addition to the physical appearance of the film's disembodied voice, Barker sees a few other differences, each intentional.
"It is funnier, I think, and more fast-paced than the movie. We have a lot of quirky things we add to all our shows -- kind of Encore! humor," Barker said. "And there's a lot of slapstick comedy and melodrama in the fantasy scenes."
While some directors might chafe at the idea of doing what basically boils down to using someone else's production concept, Barker embraces it, and mainly for the reasons involving familiarity espoused above.
"There are just some things you don't want to change too much. Like you don't want to remake The Wizard of Oz," he said. "I think the audience expects to see certain things. They don't want it to be too different. It's a lot of fun trying to stay true to the movie."
Staying true, though, means a lot of physical challenges.
"We're renting all the replica costumes and the lamp and the BB gun," Barker said. "But we're building a house in 1940, so we're getting the props and the 40s stove and refrigerator and washing machine. That's been the hardest part -- sticking to the time period."
Barker is unreservedly proud to say that potential audience members will be sorry if they wait around too long before buying tickets to this, the company's second-annual production of A Christmas Story.
"Last year was the first year we did this show, and it sold out," he said. "This year, a few of our shows have already sold out. Patrons who want to see the show should probably get their tickets pretty quick. Right now, opening night has the most available seats, but it's filling up pretty quickly."
He also voiced delight at being the director that kicks off Christmas.
"We're the first Christmas production after Thanksgiving," he said. And he's going to pour it on. "We just really want to get everyone in the holiday spirit. We'll have cookies baking onstage, and coffee and stuff like that. We want the theatre to smell like 1940s Christmas."
Presumably, no eyes will be shot out.
Encore! Theatre Arts' production of A Christmas Story runs Wednesday through Saturday, November 28 through December 1 in the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's Liddy Doenges Theatre. Evening shows begin at 7:30pm with a 2pm Saturday matinee. Tickets are $16 with discounts for kids, students, and seniors, and are available by phone at 918-596-7111 or through the PAC's website at tulsapac.com.
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