There's no need to sing the praises of the 1983 film A Christmas Story - anyone who's been near a television over the last 20 years has seen it, or at least a piece of it, and its status as a holiday classic is well-deserved.
A live theatrical adaptation of the movie seems, on paper, like a dicey proposition. Would It's a Wonderful Life retain its sense of wonder and warmth with stage actors on a set? Would Prancer translate? Bad Santa? Or, for that matter, A Charlie Brown Christmas?
The latter is actually a fair comparison when talking about Muse Arts Warehouse's current stage production of A Christmas Story. This adaptation of humorist Jean Shepherd's memoirs - or rather, of the famous movie version of Shepherd's material - is very reminiscent of the theatrical play You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
Like that show, A Christmas Story uses adult actors in the children's roles. Unlike You're a Good Man, however, it's not a musical - a good thing, since the thought of little Ralphie Parker and bully Scut Farkis suddenly breaking into song is the stuff holiday nightmares are made of.
Happily, this is a terrific production, from sentimental start to sentimental finish. Shepherd's witty, poly-syllabic reminiscences of a childhood in pre-World War II Indiana translate just fine, thank you, and director JinHi Soucy Rand has given them a unique and luminous showcase.
It's all here, including Ralph's Christmastime lust for a official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle, with a compass and this thing which tells time built right into the stock. The phrase must be used 100 times in the play, and - as in the movie - it's funny every time.
Dad (a.k.a. The Old Man) fights with the furnace and the Bumpus hounds. Randy shows us how a little piggie eats. Mom hates Dad's lamp. Flick gets his tongue stuck to a frozen pole. Little Orphan Annie deals Ralph a cruel blow.
The play does have a couple of differences, too - several characters from Shepherd's memoirs, including schoolgirls Esther Jane and Helen, are here but don't appear in the movie. Ralph's scheme to convince his parents that the BB gun is a life-or-death necessity takes a more roundabout direction.
The actors play it fairly straightforward, with just the right touches of wide-eyed cartoonish behavior (there's another Charlie Brown parallel) to make us remember we're watching an embellished childhood memory.
As Ralph, Justin Kent narrates the play, often breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience even as he's interacting with his friends and/or family.
Kent has a remarkable grasp on the blend of pathos, incredulity, humor and self-obsessive wiliness that kids use to maneuver through their days, but he's only part of a truly smart ensemble cast.
Mark Rand's Old Man has some of the most laugh-out-loud lines, and Rand is as watchable and endearing - in a rascally sort of way - as the great Darren McGavin in the film version. Likewise, Chris Soucy as Scut Farkis telegraphs the menacing and sadistic sneer of a bully who can only pick on kids who are smaller than him.
And he just plain looks funny in a coon-skin cap.
A great recurring bit involves Soucy-as-Scut chasing Ralph's pals Schwartz (Adam Scarborough-Anderson) and Flick (Thomas Houston) around the stage.
Even if you know A Christmas Story backwards and forwards, it's a treat to not only see different actors in the roles, but to watch it all unfold right in front of your eyes, as an almost interactive, three-dimensional experience.
Knowing the machinations of Hollywood, somebody, somewhere is probably plotting as we speak to re-edit the 1983 movie into a 3-D spectacular.
A Christmas Story continues through Dec. 11. Call (912) 713-1137.
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