With its appealing charm and nostalgic humor, a live orchestra in the pit, an onstage narrator who walks you through the plot with amiable authority, and a knockout dance number (“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”) that gives Stockton theatergoers a taste of Broadway right here in River City, there’s every reason to go see “A Christmas Story,” running through December 19 at the Stockton Civic Theatre.
If all that isn’t enough to motivate you, there’s another reason. The show beats the December blues and Yuletide blahs, in case you happen to be suffering from one or both. I can testify from personal experience. Allow me to explain.
Every December, when the Christmas trivia game comes round and challenges me to name Santa’s reindeer—with the exception of a beacon-nosed latecomer named Rudolph—, I manage to respond with a fast start and faster fade.
Given the number of Christmases in my lifetime, you’d think by now I would almost certainly know all the names of that iconic aerial team that hauls jolly old Saint Nick around the globe. I should be able to recite them forward and backward. Such is not the case.
All I could muster this year was a quick response of “Dasher, Dancer and Prancer” as if I had the answer down pat. Then the memory fog rolled in and I was going nowhere fast. Frantic guesswork led to Flopsy, Mopsy, Bounder and Blunder. In desperation, I hazarded a shout of “Rudolph!”
Responding with the name of the forbidden reindeer disqualified me, but my spirits were lifted by a ticket to attend “A Christmas Story,” which just so happens to be my favorite holiday story of them all.
The 1983 TV film of Jean Shepherd’s beloved story is dear to my heart, but I had yet to see the musical comedy version, adapted for the stage by Joseph Robinette, with music and lyrics by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. When I heard it was coming to Stockton, the bells started ringing.
Here was an opportunity to see my holiday favorite in fresh perspective. With singing, dancing, live music and the wry comments of that strolling narrator, it was as if the classic story of Ralphie Parker (played like a pro by young Gavin Latta) and his Red Ryder b.b. rifle obsession had been rearranged for my viewing pleasure.
What makes “A Christmas Story” a classic?
Seasonal sentiment and amusing surprises keep the show rolling and the laughs coming, but here too is the poignance of small town America before the age of television, computers and digital modernity. It’s a trip to the past with a family full of dilemmas to which fans long to return every Christmas.
Although there is no shortage of stories old and new to entertain us each December, relatively few will stand the test of time and become staples of the season.
From nineteenth-century favorites such as Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” (in which miserly Scrooge is reborn each season as a humanist) and Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” (in which no less than Sherlock Holmes gets the Christmas spirit by investigating the mystery of how a rare jewel found its way into a goose) to modern-day animations of the Grinch, the Muppets and good ol’ Charlie Brown, these tales are as necessary to savoring the season as mistletoe, decorated trees, and Aunt Tillie’s North Pole cake.
Christmas presents and Christmas memories go hand in hand in “A Christmas Story,” with its tale of a youth desperate to receive the one gift his adult mentors insist he can’t and shouldn’t have.
Ralphie is convinced that with his Red Ryder special in hand, he’d be what he wants to be—a Western-style hero and a big shot in his small-town neighborhood. Only problem is it’s an absolute no-no to his mom and his teacher. “You’ll shoot your eye out” he’s warned every time he reveals his desire. Even a department store Santa reacts to Ralphie’s gotta-have-it plea with the wrong kind of ho-ho-ho.
With a musical comedy adaptation of the film giving us a new take on Ralphie and his world, the opportunity for delight commences with the character of author Shepherd (deftly played by Ron Smith) dropping a not-enough dollar in the charity pot. As host and guide, Shepherd takes us back across the years into the home and the hearts of the Parker family. In the original film, the narrator was heard but not seen. That voice, incidentally, belonged to Shepherd himself.
The stage format brings with it singing and dancing that enlivens the story without compromising it. Here again are Ralphie and his whiny kid brother Randy, his comforting mother, and a father who divides his time between condemning his neighbor’s thieving dogs, cursing a faulty furnace as he charges downstairs for yet another repair, and proudly displaying the most ridiculous bowling trophy you’ve ever seen.
Throw in such cherished plot elements as mom’s overdressing her boys for winter, an unusual contest of courage occasioned by the ultimate taunt of boyhood—“I triple-dog dare you!” and neighborhood bullies who single out Ralphie as a target of derision and abuse until Ralphie discovers that courage does not depend on a Red Ryder rifle.
All of which took this reviewer back in time to his own boyhood home of the 1940s, when cowboy heroes (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger) were my ideal of self-reliant masculinity. My desire for heroic impersonation was rewarded one holiday with a Hopalong Cassidy hat that came down over my ears and a gun belt (with cap-firing pistol) that came down to my knees.
Watching the exploits of Ralphie, I couldn’t help envisioning myself as the real-life Ralphie swaggering up and down my boyhood home, posing as the toughest dude in town and earning a smile from my mom and a frown from my big sister, Nancy Ann.
Maybe there’s a Ralphie in every youngster who feels the need to be more than an insignificant little kid.
For its many fans, there’s the pleasure of returning to the Parker household of “A Christmas Story” and to a simpler age where memories, pleasant and otherwise, still linger. The Civic Theatre production made that once again possible for me. I made a sentimental pilgrimage to a home I last saw over seventy years ago, imagining myself in a Hopalong Cassidy hat that this time fitted my head and a well-fitted belt whose official toy pistol would make me the fastest draw in the West. All I lacked was a horse, a polished pair of cowboy boots with jingle-jangle spurs and a chocolate cigarette dangling from my lips.
And, if you please, another smile from mom and another frown from Nancy Ann.
“A Christmas Story” runs through December 19, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Adults $29, senior adults $24 and students $17.
Box office (209) 473-2424
A retired reporter and editor, Stockton resident Howard Lachtman has written Delta-centered detective stories, Stockton Civic Theatre reviews and a variety of baseball tales for Soundings. In 2006. he was honored by the Stockton Arts Commission for “24 years of superior review and commentary on the performing and literary arts in Stockton.”