A Christmas Story from film to stage

Twenty four hours, that’s the amount of time,  beginning Christmas Eve, that the story of Ralphie Parker airs on TNT, a marathon that began in 1997 and, like that “frightul” weather, shows no sign of stopping. The movie, based on short stories by Jean Shepherd, premiered on Thanksgiving 1983 and its popularity has increased since then. The theatrical adaptation of “A Christmas Story” is the newcomer. Written in 2000, it now is a the holiday choice of those companies brave enough to face off with the film version. The only such company in the Michiana area to date is South Bend Civic Theatre which still has two weekends to go on its four-weekend run.

All the familiar scenes are there and, even though I will always prefer Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Peter Billingsley and the rest of the inhabitants of Hohman IN. (aka Hammond but here presented as South Bend), the local version has several assets including the two-story set which immediately gives the feel of a 1940s middle class home. Designed by Phil Patnaude, it is versatile enough to encompass several locations, both inside and outside the Parker home, with special applause for the department store’s “Santa slide.”  The actors, of necessity, bear some resemblence to the film’s cast. They do this well, especially the young actors — Alex Kilmore as the beleaguered Ralphie, Soren Campbell as his younger brother Randy, Brandon Myers as his triple-dog-dare buddy Flick, Braidon Nutting as Schwartz, Billy Miller as bully Scut Farkas, Lea Melton as Ralphie’s would-be girlfriend Esther Jane Alberry and Madison Schmucker as class feminist Helen Weathers. They also recreate the characters successfully beyond the physical appearance. Kilmore is empathetic as the pre-teen whose only wish is for “an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” His every request elicits the same response “You’ll shoot your eye out” but his determination is laudable and his responses, heartwarming. The film has an off-screen narrator in the voice of author Shepherd. The play chooses to have the older Ralph represented in person. Here, as played by Mark Moriarty, he is obtrusively in the midst of every scene, delivering the subliminal dialogue in shotgun fashion. It is a memory play, not a sporting event.   Miller is every kid’s nightmare and his comuppence earns applause and, when Meyers advances to the frosty flagpole, tongue outstretched, the immediate urge is to warn him off. We wait instead for the inevitable hilarious result. Ralph’s dad, referred to as The Old Man, his mom, identified simply as Mother, are adequately represented by Greg Melton and Nicole Brinkman Reeves and Jennie DeDario is crisply assertive as Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields. Seven performances of “A Christmas Story” remain. For show times and ticket information/reservations, check the SBCT website above.

King and I really big show

The Premier Arts production of “The King and I,” which played the first of its three performances at the Elco Theatre Friday evening is, to quote the late Ed Sullivan (ask your older friends), “a reeeeely big show.”  Bigger, however, does not always mean better. In fact, this “King and I” — one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Big Five” — is frequently best when The King (Curtis Hill Jr.) and Anna Leonowens (Liberty Morgan Cantzler) are interacting alone. Cantzler has the majority of the production on her slim shoulders and, as the English widow summoned to the court of Siam in the late 1860s to teach King Mongkut’s many children, she is well up to the task. With five solos (plus two reprises), she is on stage most of the time and, when not, obviously is changing costumes. Still, she manages to deliver a sustained, solid and sensitive performance which is, at all times, very believeable. She also has a warm and true soprano which more than does justice to such familiar melodies as “Getting to Know You” and “Hello Young Lovers.” Her  angry soliloquy, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” delivered after a confrontation with the king, is well done but would be more effective up to tempo. As the autocratic and absolute ruler, Hill reprises the role he created for Elkhart Civic

Theatre in 2000, but here with lots more glitter and eye shadow. He has lost none of the commanding physical presence required for the monarch (a la Yul Brynner). The stance is there, but rapid delivery sometimes results in the loss of dialogue. Whatever the few flaws, there is no doubt he will forever be associated with this character, no matter what roles he may undertake in the future. He IS The King!   The ill-fated lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha are played, according to the program, by Maddy Whitby and Peter Sessions. On Friday evening, however, Whitby, who was in a minor car accident on Wednesday, was replaced by choreographer Ashley Frost, a fact that was not announced to the audience. Hopefully, Whitby will be on stage tonight and Sunday. Frost was a very acceptable substitute and she and Sessions blended well on their two duets, “We Kiss in the Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” Don’t look for the last  in the film version. It was not included, nor were “Shall I Tell You” or “My Lord and Master,” Tuptim’s initial solo. Laurie DuBois was Lady Thiang, first wife to the king and mother of the crown prince, who expresses her feelings about the king in “Something Wonderful.” There are so many “Siamese children” in this production (80 in the children’s ensemble) that one wonders how the King who fathered them all had time to do anything else.  All know where to go and when and how to behave on stage, which definitely is a plus and hopefully will  be put to good use in future productions. But the sheer magnitude of the numbers tends to make them all blur together, unless, of course, you’re a friend or relative, and there were many among the 1,200 people in the Elco Friday evening. The youngsters in featured roles — Jackson Fann as Crown Prince Chulalongcorn, Brayden Cantzler as Louis Leonowens and DeAnn Veatch as Princess Ying Yaowalak — carried off their assignments with aplomb, and the adorable Veatch was a real heartbreaker. Unfortunately, the dancers in the second act ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” were not named in the program (nor were any of the scenes or musical numb ers). So I can say only that Eliza and Co. did a very fine job in the Siamese version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “The King and I” plays at 7:30 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Elco. Call 293-4469.

Accent on Youth

This past weekend two local productions were aimed directly at youngsters. One was performed by a mix of older (college grads) and younger actors and the other, by a definitely young cast. Garbed in tee-shirts, overalls and (literally) dog-eared caps in primary colors, Red Dog (Brian Wells), Blue Dog (Diana Meidan Zhao), Green Dog (Anna Harris) and Yellow Dog (Regina Warren) joined two spotted “dalmatians”, M.C. Dog (Kyle Curtis) and Hattie (Breanna Kelly),  in a day and a night of non-stop (excepting intermission) doggie adventures. There was no doubt that this was aimed strictly at the pre-teen audience members, but that didn’t stop their accompanying adults in sharing the many laughs as the lop-eared canines played and slept (“Dogs sleep at night” except these didn’t) through a series of extremely physical anticshart  The best for me was watching the very young viewers watch the on-stage action. It was in the Warner Studio Theatre where the audience was only an arms-length away from the actors and many in the front row reached out to greet the “dogs” throughout the performance. They was no need to suspend disbelief. They absolutely believed! It was an object lesson of how to prepare the audience of tomorrow through a thoroughly entertaining performance today. And, at an hour and 15 minutes, was definitely within their attention span. “Go, Dog,Go!” coninues Wednesday through Sunday. At the Bristol Opera House, the newly-named E.C. Team (replacing the redundant Elkhart Civic Theatre Youth Theatre) offered “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” for one weekend only. The cast was made up of all young people, the oldest one or two in high school but, although there were no program listings, it was obvious that most were from area middle schools.  Directed by Karen Johnson, the two dozen cast members acquitted themselves and their director admirably. In the title role, Joel Lininger made every line distinguishable, even to the rear of the house, and never lost a bit of dialogue.  He was on stage in every scene and carried off this formidable assignment with ease, whether he was fighting (or getting “engaged”), he took it all in stride. Undoubtedly a leading man in the making. The surrounding cast also paid attention to the basics of stage craft: How to stand, how to deliver dialogue and how to create a character. This was most obvious in the featured players, notably Dakota Miller who played Aunt Polly, Andrew Scott as Tom’s smug, tattle-tale brother Sid, and Ted Field as Tom’s partner-in-crime Huckleberry Finn. The group of Tom’s peers, both male and female,  (with special notice to the “smallest,” McKenna Kaczanowski, who was a clear as a bell) handled their roles well. Not only did this group deliver the lines without stumbling, they also served as the stage crew to shift the set pieces from one of the many required locations to the other and did so swiftly and quite silently, allowing the many scenes of the two-act production to flow easily. To those of us who wonder about the casts and crews of the coming seasons, it was a real shot in the arm .. or the program. Only wish some brief bios could have identified the ages, schools and — even at their ages — possible “theatrical experience.” Maybe for the next E.C. Team production, which will be a musical, “Willie Wonka Jr.” to be presented Feb. 13-15 at the Opera. A cast of 50 is planned to include ages 8 to 18. Auditions at 10 a.m. Dec. 6 at the BOH. I do encourage all young people with any interest in being on or off-stage to give it a try!

There's Life in the Old Bard Yet

For those who think Shakespeare is only for the intellectually elite, I suggest a visit to the South Bend Civic Theatre for a crash — and I do mean CRASH — course in almost everything by the Bard of Avon. “

For those who think Shakespeare is only for the intellectually elite, I suggest a visit to the South Bend Civic Theatre for a crash — and I do mean CRASH — course in almost everything by the Bard of Avon. “

The Compleat Wrks of Wm Shkspr (Abr.)” opened Friday evening on the Wilson Mainstage and, after joining in the mayhem Saturday evening, I have to wonder if the cast of thousands . . . actually three men . . . will make it through the six more scheduled performances without actual bodily injury. Beginning rather sedately with an invitation to “intellectual salvation,” Cecil Eastman, Matthew Fox and Ted Manier (who co-directed with Executive Director Jim Coppens) proceeded to romp through “Romeo and Juliet,” “Titus Andronicus” (presented as a cooking school … think about it!), “Othello” (done as a rap due to the lack of an African American leading man), “Macbeth” (with resonantly rolling Rs reaching all the way to Brigadoon), “Julius Caesar,” “Anthony and Cleopatra,” and mention of the “obscure/lesser/bad” plays (“Troilus and Cressida,” “Two Noble Kinsmen”?) described with interpretive dance, a toy gorilla and an inflatable dinosaur. The 16 comedies were compiled and referenced in one because, as the trio observed, all use the same comedic devices. The histories took on the form of a royal sporting event (football, what else? it is South Bend!) with the crown passing from Richard II and III to all the Henrys while heads rolled and downs were destroyed. Intermission was signaled when Ted refused to do “Hamlet” as the second act and was chased up the aisle by an irate Matthew while Cecil “played” for time. Inevitably, the Prince of Denmark took center stage and expanded his domain into the audience as an Ophelia was selected for screaming purposes and a young man for something else, I never was quite sure what but he ran back and forth a lot. Not to feel left out, the crowd was split into several sections and assigned different lines which we were to shout out as directed. The result, no surprise, was complete bedlam. Also, no surprise, it was a huge hit with the audience. The grand finale, a triple mega-mix of the Danish tragedy, concluded with the fastest recap done . . . backwards. My primary impression was that the actors, who handled the actual Shakespeare with differing degrees of success, had to be exhausted!  In and out, up and down, they never obviously missed an entrance or an exit or a costume change, and there were at least 15 per minute of the last. Their energy level never fell below 1,000 percent. This makes it a shame that, once again, the primary drawback is the acoustical setup of the main stage auditorium. It plagues every production and, in this, renders much of the rapid-fire dialogue unintelligible. I can only hope that some sort of solution can be found. For performance dates and times and tickets, check the South Bend Civic website.

 

This Pond is Still Golden

Almost 30 years after its premiere on Broadway, Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” continues to shine. The dramatic comedy opened Elkhart Civic Theatre’s 47th season Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House with a cast headed by Bob Franklin and Susan D. South. The simple story of one summer at a Maine lake house offers an abundance of laughs, a few well-earned tears and characters that hit close — sometimes too close — to home. The play opened originally in 1979, earning leading lady Frances Sternhagen a Tony Award. The 2005 revival starred James Earl Jones (also a Tony winner) and Leslie Uggams. it is undoubtedly best known for the 1981 screen version which earned Oscars for stars Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn. There is a reason for it’s continued popularity and the ECT production shows why. Norman and Ethel Thayer are spending their 48th summer in their cottage on Golden Pond, where Norman will mark his 80th birthday. On hand, briefly, are daughter Chelsea (Stephanie Salisbury), her latest boy friend Bill Ray (Carl Wiesinger) and his son, Bill Jr. (Michael Salisbury). Within the first three minutes, it is hilariously obvious  that life with Norman is no easy task. He gives new meaning to the term curmudgeon. Irascible and cantankerous, he has sharp words for all within earshot and, as Ethel declares, his favorite topic is dying. Long estranged from Chelsea, whose continuing — and frustrating — purpose is to please her father, he manages to upset everyone except Ethel who lets his caustic comments roll off her back as the water of Golden Pond rolls off her favorite water fowl, the loons. The bottom line: She loves him. Bill, a dentist from California, tries almost successfully to beard the lion in his den. An hilarious scene in which he attempts to put his cards on the table regarding sexual mores concludes with the frustrated suitor declaring “You have a good time messing with people’s heads.” Norman nods in agreement. Left with the Thayers while Chelsea and Bill head for Europe, 13-yeqr-old  Bill Jr. eventually bridges the age gap and connects with Norman via classic literature, lots of fishing and the sharing of his teen vocabulary. The role of Norman, which he played in the 1992 ECT production,  fits Franklin like a well-worn old jacket. His Norman is not a cruel or vicious man.  He is what he is and doesn’t feel required to change for anyone.   Beneath his fixation with mortality, is a genuine and increasing anxiety about what may lie not too far in the future. He is losing his grip but determined not to let anyone know. And probably no none does except  Ethel. South never “plays” old, even though she is several decades younger than her character. She finds instead the warmth, understanding and, so necessary with Norman, the unending patience of a wife who knows her husband better than he knows himself and always puts him first.  Wiesinger has only one scene but he makes it count. Stephanie Salisbury is the emotional Thayer but is almost too controlled in baring her feelings about Norman to her “Mommy.” Michael Salisbury is everyteen, striving to shock but  ready to meet adults halfway. Like most teens, he needs to project. As Charlie  Martin, the lake postman and long-time friend of the Thayers, David Robey delivers a laugh that eventually becomes rather infectuous. The Thayers summer in another ready-to-live-in set designed by John Jay Shoup, based on Leslie Torok’s design for the ’92production. Hope the screen door survives the run. On opening night, the pace was too slow in spots, but this happens frequently in a comedy where timing must be razor sharp and the addition of audience laughter factored in on the spot. “On Golden Pond” is directed by Randy Zonker. It plays at 8 p.m. today and next Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 21. For tickets: 848-4116.