Being a great fan of Bob Clark’s beloved 1983 movie A Christmas Story, based on the writing of American raconteur Jean Shepherd, I had one simple Christmas wish for the stage adaptation running now at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Mainstage: “Please don’t mess it up.”
And like so many kids at Christmas, I sort of got what I wanted - but not entirely.
If you’re familiar with the film version - of which Philip Grecian’s 2000 adaptation is a fairly faithful rendering - you’ll know the story. For the uninitiated (and honestly, make this your Christmas movie-watching priority if that’s you), the wistfully nostalgic tale takes us back to Indiana in the late 1930s. There, our young hero Ralphie Parker (played with aplomb by Ben McIntyre-Ridd) navigates childhood in middle America, and the frenzied lead-up to Christmas.
Narrated by the adult Ralph (Rob McLaughlin), a series of comic vignettes take us back to an impossibly simple time, and Ralphie’s quest to land the ultimate Christmas present - a coveted Red Ryder BB gun.
And while most of us aren’t quite old enough to remember Christmas in the late ‘30s, there’s a sweet nostalgia and wry humour here that draws us in. And descriptions of the frigid Indiana winter will ring true to any Manitoban (“Getting ready for school during an ordinary Indiana winter was like preparing for a deep-sea dive,” Ralph tells us).
But here’s where Grecian’s adaptation of A Christmas Story falls short. In its paint-by-numbers attempt to recreate every treasured moment of the movie, the play becomes a too-rushed effort (in spite of a running time around 150 minutes with intermission), and relies far too heavily on the device of the narrator.
What worked so well in the film (thanks largely to narration from Jean Shepherd himself) doesn’t fully translate in this stage adaptation. There’s a definite sense of “telling” over “showing” here - and the narration often feels like it gets in the way of a story we’d rather watch unfold than have recited to us. McLaughlin struggled gamely with the weighty role in the preview performance I saw, but the narrator character too often felt disconnected from the action onstage.
But those unfamiliar with the film version may find that less an issue - and indeed, there are many strengths in Robb Paterson’s production. It’s wrapped in a stunning package, thanks to designer Brian Perchaluk. He creates a wintery yet cozy set, smartly using sliding tracks to quickly move from one location to another - everything from the Parker house to a department store to a snake-infested jungle in one of Ralphie’s very funny fantasy sequences.
There’s lots of solid work in the all-local cast of 11 too. The youngsters deliver charming performances across the board (McIntyre-Ridd is joined by his real-life brother Daniel McIntyre-Ridd, William Krovats, Tristan Mackid, Meguire McRae-King, Natalie Viebrock, and Mackenzie Wojcik - the last a scene-stealer as Ralphie’s strange younger brother Randy). Gordon Tanner finds the heart of gold in Ralphie’s crusty dad, and Sharon Bajer and Jennifer Lyon both do some great comic work as Ralphie’s mother and teacher, respectively.
But I suspect how much of the intended warm, fuzzy holiday glow this show will leave you with will depend largely on your attachment to the source material. Those who’ve never seen the film may find this a perfectly charming Christmas story - and a standing ovation from much of the preview performance crowd suggested they did.
As for me, well, it did stoke my interest in re-watching Bob Clark’s holiday classic.