Rocky Tech Mars SB 'Christmas Story'

In 1983, a little movie based on semi-fictional incidents in books by Hoosier author Jean Shepherd was released.

Titled “A Christmas Story,” it came into the film world without too much notice and remained that way until 1997 when the Turner Broadcasting System opted to fill Christmas Eve/Day with marathon reruns on its TV channels.

The resurrection — and increased popularity — of this family-based film has not only continued to this day but has expanded to include theatrical versions — with and without music.

The non–musical version opened a four-weekend run Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Auditorium.

A Christmas Story South Bend (IN) Civc TheatreThe production, directed by Bill Heimann and featuring a bravura performance by Art Kopec and a gaggle of kids, is unfortunately less than smooth, especially in the technical department.

Turning a film (or book) that segues from reality to fantasy as the older son dreams of himself as the hero in a variety of situations, always accompanied by his longed-for Christmas present — “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model with a compass in the stock and ‘this thing which tells time’ (a sundial)” — is no easy task.

Ralphie (Jack Elliott) is nothing if not creative in the pursuit of his dream gift. He is, however, thwarted at every turn and haunted by the universal warning “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Kopec is Ralph or Ralphie as an adult. He has the Herculean task of narrating the entire tale. After a shaky start with a bombastically shotgun delivery, he settles in and down to a persona that never seems out of place no matter the hectic proceedings. He is a solid presence that weaves each incident, real or imagined, together with the warmth of a memory softened with the passage of time.

Ralphie’s dad, The Old Man (Don Elliott), remains way over the top, so that when his “Major Award” arrives his exuberance is only slightly above his daily decibel level. In contrast, his Mother (Alexandria Cooper) is so low key as to be mostly a whisper. Their on-again/off-again battle with the leg lamp is a humorous twist.

A Christmas Story  South Bend (IN ) Civic TheatreThe schoolmates of Ralphie and his younger brother Randy (John Potts) are almost consistently too soft and too fast vocally, always a problem for young actors, which could be at least partially remedied by having them face a bit to the audience and slow down.

Brayden Goddard and Zac Richardson as Ralphie’s best friends Flick and Schwartz, respectively, are happily audible as is Blake Allison as the school bully Scut Farkas who gets his well-deserved comeuppance when Ralphie finally snaps.

The set, which centers around the Parker home, extends to both side of the large (and I have to say cumbersome) stage, allowing Ralphie’s fantasies to be played in front of the house. The works well until the school classroom appears, with a large desk for the teacher, Miss Shields (Shelly Overgaard). Bringing the desk on and off, which happens at least twice, should stop the show, but not for the usual show-stopping reasons. It is so loud everything else is drowned out, including Kopec‘s continuing dialogue.

There goes whatever mood has been achieved.

Cannot believe this only happened at the performance we attended which begs the question, why did the director do nothing to silence the thundering desk? As with the too-abrupt starts and stops of the intermittent music, these are fixable problems that should not have seen opening night.

It is never entertaining to see hard-working actors undermined by sloppy technical work.

“A CHRISTMAS STORY” plays through Dec. 23 in the SBCT Wilson Auditorium, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For information and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit sbct.org.

 

Christmas Classic Set To Music

Like many other now-classic Christmas stories, “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical” came to the theatrical stage following a film.

The Meredith Willson (that’s right, “The Music Man” Meredith Willson) holiday musical, which opened a three weekend run in Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre Friday evening, began back in 1947 as a very popular “straight” family movie from 20th Century Fox which went for the Christmas gold again with a repeat in 1994.

In between movies were a 1973 made-for-TV version and Willson’s 1963 musical, initially titled “Here’s Love.”

All of which goes to prove you change the format and the title but you can’t keep a good Christmas story down.

First, let’s agree that lightening doesn’t often strike twice and this “Miracle” is a far cry from River City. What it is is a familiar and traditionally heart-warming story about the real meaning of Christmas, which ups the sentimental quotient considerably via pleasant but not memorable melodies.

As always Wagon Wheel director Scott Michaels has assembled a solid cast led by Robert Joseph Miller as Kris Kringle (Yes, Virginia, that beard is real!); Cordelia Grandon as Susan Walker, the pre-teen who doesn’t believe in Santa; Jennifer Dow as her mother, Doris, a divorcee with a lot of bitter memories and a lack of belief in anything she can’t see, taste or touch; and Nathan Robert Pecchia as Fred Gaily, a warm-hearted lawyer who comes to Susan’s aid and Santa’s defense. His warm baritone is a plus throughout. Dow and Pecchia have the task of making their unlikely relationship seem likely, in spite of a script that doesn’t help.

In addition to Santa, audience favorites are Chuckie Benson as Marvin Shellhammer, a toadying Macy’s employee, and Mike Yocum as his equally bombastic boss R.H. Macy. Together they put the “far out” in farce, with Benson doing double time in the prat fall department.

Miracle on 34th St. Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INThe rather uneven scenario jumps from up-tempo ensemble numbers (“Big Ca-Lown Balloons.” “Plastic Alligators,” “Here’s Love,” “That Man Over There Is Santa Claus” and “My State, My Kansas”) to introspective solo ballads (“You Don’t Know,” “Doris’ Look” and “Love Come Take Me Away), the last being the most fish-out-of-water finale of any musical in recent memory, in spite of being well delivered. I kept waiting for more balloons!

Grandon handles well the role of pragmatic young girl who finds belief in her heart and helps Kris recharge his own.

Miller does a fine job of balancing Santa’s interaction with unbelieving adults and definitely believing children, especially in “Bugles,” sung with Parker Ralstin, an adorable scene stealer as Hendrika, a little Dutch girl who can’t speak English. His introduction to Susan of the (“Imagi-Nation”) speaks to all ages as he encourages her to “Expect Things to Happen.”

It’s a plus that he really looks like Santa!

The “Miracle” ensemble is made up of equal parts adults and children, some very young. Check them out. Each one knows exactly what to do and when to do it and delivers all with enthusiastic fervor and an enviable focus!

NOTE: For those who have no idea what Macy’s and Gimbel’s were, try Google.

“MIRACLE ON 34th STREET: A Musical” plays Friday through Sunday and Dec. 15-17 in the theatre at 251 E. Center St. in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041.