by Toni Wilson Wood
A Christmas Story was my favorite Christmas movie until 2003 when Elf came out. I would wait with similar glee to a child waiting for Christmas morning for TBS’s annual 24 hour marathon of A Christmas Story and watched it several times during that time. Every. Year. To this day, I still have a soft spot for overly winter dressed children who can’t put their arms down, miserable children dressed in horrid bunny costumes, hilariously earnest daydreams about how to get exactly what you want, and leg lamps.
If you are coming to Waterloo Community Playhouse’s version expecting to see all the moments in the movie, okay, you will. The difference here is that director Anita Ross took the basics of the scenes and created versions of them that fit well with the vision she had of A Christmas Story. The play as a whole is faithful to the familiar and iconic scenes of the film, but does a great job of not just being the movie.
This beautiful, funny and poignant slice of 1940s life comes to us as a memory play, as Ralph (played by Tom Nicol) narrates the play. Nicol is on stage for approximately 99% of the show and he had great energy and pace through the whole show. It was fun to see Nicol interact with his younger self, played by Hunter Russell, a 4th grader from Lincoln Elementary in Cedar Falls. Russell plays Ralphie with the same kind of deep thinking and imagination as one would expect from this role, but he also had something else about him that made Ralphie his own. It could be because we got extra information about Ralphie and his friends and family, but Russell did a great job owning this role.
The rest of the Parker family, Randy (played by Emma Batterson, a 4th grader from Orchard Hill Elementary who emulated Randy from the film version so closely and with such hilarity, I was sure that they had built a time machine and got the original actor), Mother (Kristin Peterson) and the Old Man (Keegan Patterson), were just as perfect. Both Peterson and Patterson started out kind of stiff in the beginning of the show (probably opening night jitters) but within a scene or two, they were both on fire. Patterson had big shoes to fill for this part, but he did it, creating The Old Man in all his Oldsmobile spirituality, garbled curse word, Bumpus hound hating glory. Peterson and Patterson had delightful chemistry, Peterson taking sass from Patterson until it was time to just turn back on him.
The entire cast worked as seamlessly as the coveted well oiled BB gun Ralphie so desperately wants for Christmas. The children in the cast were particularly stunning, and not just the four major boys Ralphie (Hunter Russel), Randy (Emma Batterson), Flick (Syler Dams) and Schwartz (Mackenzie Cole). What I loved about this production compared to the film is that you learn more about the children in Ralphie’s class, and the previously mentioned four characters are fleshed out more than in the movie. Particularly, the ultra-brainiac Helen (Emmi Flynn) and the girl with a crush on Ralphie, Esther Jane (Anna Jacobsen) were standouts. Flynn’s character had me laughing for about ten minutes at one point and her solo with ‘All I Want for Christmas’ was one of the most professional performances I have seen from a young child; between this show and others I have seen at BHCT, I can say in all confidence we have an abundance of extremely gifted young actors and singers in this area.
The only problems I found with the production were that some actors could have benefited from being miked in order to hear them better, particularly during some of the songs, and there was one iconic scene I felt was rushed and fell kind of flat, but overall, this is a family friendly, utterly charming production.
If you have children in your life who enjoy theatre, this would be a great experience for them. There were several children in the row I was seated in and it was great fun to watch them jump up to see what just happened on stage and ask their parents what was going to happen next. Seeing their eyes light up with laughter was a greater gift than seeing this show live on stage.