Encore Michigan

Encore Musical kicks off holiday season with ‘A Christmas Story’

Review November 29, 2022 David Kiley

DEXTER, Mich.–A Christmas Story, the 1983 movie that runs for 24 hours on Christmas Day, has become for some an “oh no, again!” experience. But for me (and I don’t invoke the first person very often) it is a story that makes me pull my childhood out of a cedar-lined trunk with the winter afghan knitted for me by Mother.

The movie sprung from the memoir writings and storytelling of Jean Shepherd, a famous and unique radio personality in New York City who was a mainstay of the evening airwaves in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Shepherd’s stories about growing up in Indiana were the stuff of cheese, knockwurst, beer and Bears-Packers games, his boyhood pals, teachers…and family. But his yarns played like gold to the city slickers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which tuned into WOR-AM Radio until he signed off in 1977. My Dad and I listened nightly to Shepherd on his small transistor radio, though I often fell asleep before the show was over.

A Christmas Story is vintage Shepherd, who was a master storyteller: His wanton adolescent desire for a Red Rider BB Gun; his father’s penchant for cursing, kicking the finicky furnace, nibbling the turkey before it was done, wanting to be timed on how long it took to change a tire, hatred for the neighbor’s hounds. It was all a tapestry of living in small-town Indiana at a time when there was still a department store downtown.

The musical version of the story has become very popular on national tours and regional theatres of quality like The Encore Musical Theatre, which shows the play through December 18.

It seems redundant to describe the plot. In short, though, it centers on Ralphie (Gavin Cooney) who for weeks lading up to Christmas pines for a Red Rider. He writes an essay for school about it. He visits Santa and asks for it. Of course, he gets the same response from everyone–“You’ll shoot your eye out.”

The songs written, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, around the adapted book by Joseph Robinette are nice fits with the Shepherd story: “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun, “ Ralphie To The Rescue,” “A Stickey Situation,” and more.

What the play is really about is life in small-town America in the 1930s when Shepherd was growing up, though the movie and the show has a slightly more ‘40s patina. The appeal of the show, I think, for baby boomers is a trip back to a time when you knew everyone on your street, kids put bread bags in their boots to make them go on easier and storytelling from a small transistor radio seemed more magical than any video game. The younger folks enjoy it too, like looking at a musical telling of a time they never knew, but somehow feel drawn to.

Young Mr. Cooney does a solid job at the ripe age of 11 of carrying the show. It helps that he comes from a talented bloodline. Dan Cooney directs and Jessica Grové, Gavin’s real-life Mother, plays his Mom on stage. His sister, Lolly Cooney, is in the ensemble, making it a full-on family affair. That’s okay. The story is about family, and all four Cooneys are well up to the task. David Moan nails his role as the “Old Man” who, to make the story work, must draw more love and respect than fear as the patriarch.

Brian Cowan, a real-life radio DJ, fittingly plays Shepherd as narrator on stage. Not to be overlooked are some excellent ensemble players and supporting players. Cora Steiger is excellent as Ralphie’s kid brother Randy who memorably gets trapped in his snowsuit. Elliott Gray is an uncanny likeness for the dreaded Scut Farkas from the film. Vaan Otto is  a game Flick who gets his tongue stuck on the frozen flagpole. And Jack Steiger has stage presence beyond his years as Ralphie-pal Schwartz. Ally Ellis is also especially good in her role as teacher Miss Shields.

Shane Cinal designed a superb hard working modular set that gets moved, spun and shifted to give us the inside of Ralphie’s house, the outside of the house, school room, school exterior, department store. Anne Donevan on props, and Marilee Dechart and Sandee Koski on costumes, get it all right to move us back to the Roosevelt White House years.

Make no mistake, this Christmas Story is quite a production, with 24 cast members, many of them playing multiple roles with many costume changes, dance, a gaggle of kids and volunteer “kid wranglers.” It’s a whole lot of fun, with the very capable R. Mackenzie Lewis leading the music from the balcony.

Maybe don’t wait for the 24 Hours of A Christmas Story, and get your fill at The Encore in the next few weeks while there are still some tickets left.

Week of 2/6/2023

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