By Sharon Eberson
Michael Berresse, the director, choreographer and Tony-nominated performer, will have a Christmas story of his own to tell now that he finds himself in Pittsburgh, a stone’s throw from where it all began.
As he directs Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Jean Shepherd’s hallowed holiday tale, A Christmas Story, he can’t help but harken back to the summer of 1988, at the Benedum Center, when he earned his coveted Equity card as an ensemble player for Pittsburgh CLO.
He recalled walking over the Ninth Street Bridge to get to work and the PPG “castle building.”
It seemed magical at the time, like being dropped into the land of Oz, Berresse said.
“So now I have been tapping back into a sense of wonder that I had being on a huge stage for the first time, with the giant ensemble and guest stars like Cathy Rigby and Maureen Brennan and Lenora [Nemetz], of course, was Fanny Brice in Funny Girl,” Berresse recalled. ‘“Everything was sort of wondrous and spectacular to me, and I would sit on stage during tech or on breaks, and I would watch all the other departments doing their work and listen to conversations. I think my love of directing really started here.”
Berresse came back once more as a performer, in a 1997 production of Kiss Me Kate – the show that later earned him a featured actor Tony nominee. Among his Broadway credits, Berresse directed [title of show] and most recently appeared in 2019’s The Cher Show as Bob Mackie, among other characters.
His return to Pittsburgh after a 25-year absence began with a text from frequent collaborator and A Christmas Story’s scenic designer, Tim Mackabee, asking, “‘Hey, are you interested or available by any off chance around the holiday season for directing something in Pittsburgh?”
Berresse answered, “Tell me more.”
A Zoom meeting with artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski followed, “and her face popped up on the screen, and I thought, ‘I like that person,’ and by the end of that first phone call, we knew it was going to happen.”
The timing was right – Berresse was between projects – although he came onboard relatively late in the process, working with a cast of all Pittsburgh-area actors.
Holiday time in Pittsburgh has lots of opportunities for child actors, and one of youngsters under Berresse’s direction was not only a Cratchit kid for CLO; but Eamonn McElfresh also has appeared in a stage production of A Christmas Story for The Theatre Factory in Trafford.
The 13-year-old Pittsburgh CAPA student is a relative veteran among the youngsters. McElfresh plays Scut Farkus, the schoolyard bully who gets his comeuppance via Ralphie Parker, played by McElresh’s CAPA schoolmate, Sebastian Madoni.
They have appeared together onstage at school, “so it’s funny when he is beating me up, ‘cause we’re friends,” McElfresh said just days from opening night on December 3. “It’s hard not to laugh sometimes.”
McElfresh describes his character as being on a bit of a power trip, flaunting his status as older, bigger and meaner. The actor gets a boost getting into the Farkus mindset from his wardrobe.
“It may sound so simple, but there are these worn and tattered cowboy boots that really make me feel like I’m walking in the character’s shoes. … And then the second thing is this leather jacket – It’s like the most Farkus-y thing I’ve ever seen,” he says with a laugh.
Among the challenges of directing any production of A Christmas Story is it calls for several young actors; for example, Ralphie is 9 and his brother Randy (Will Chambers) is 7 in the story.
Berresse has directed child actors before, but usually one at a time.
“In addition to the volume of kids in the show, they are primary characters, driving a lot of the story,” Berresse said. “And when I only have them for three hours a day in rehearsal post school and a 2 ½-week rehearsal period, it is very challenging. But honestly, they’ve been, I think, the most surprising joy for me in this process. We walk into rehearsal, and as soon as they see me, I’ve got 10 kids running down the hallway screaming, ‘Michael! Michael!,’ and there’s so much joy in them. There’s so much passion and so much professionalism. And they’re learning, too.”
McElfresh is among the kids with an acting background, including two Pittsburgh-shot movies, Jack and the Treehouse and Cha Cha Real Smooth.
The director noted McElfresh’s curiosity about the process of creating a new production that includes indoor-outdoor transitions on the O’Reilly’s thrust stage.
“It’s opened me up a lot more to the behind the scenes aspect, because the amount of technical stuff that’s in this show? It’s like, a lot,” McElfresh said.
There also is a story of a family that has captured the imaginations of holiday viewers since it was released in 1983, and became a television staple, It has been shown in a Christmas Eve-to-Christmas Day marathon on TNT since 1997 and on TBS since 2004. Shepherd narrated and co-scripted the film, based on his own semi-autobiographical stories about growing up in small-town Indiana. The version being produced by the Public was adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian in 2000.
Other cast members in the Pittsburgh production include Jamie Agnello as Mother, Hope M. Anthony as Miss Shields, Colin Bozick as Flick, Suraya Love Collins as Ester Jane Alberry, Zora Rose as Helen Weathers and Charlie Julian Stull as Schwartz.
Berresse said watching the Parker family unit develop and the cast come together in such a short time has been among a big part of the heartwarming experience.
For anyone who might have missed the book, film, play or the Pasek-Paul musical version, A Christmas Story is set in the 1940s and follows the misadventures of Ralphie, his friends and his family during the holiday season, when what he wants more than anything in the world is “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle.” It was a different time, to be sure.
Berresse said the show has more props than any he has ever worked on, including perhaps the most famous table lamp in all of cinema, the “major award” won by Ralphie’s irascible Old Man (played by Tim McGeever). Then there are the snowy outdoor scenes, with that infamous triple-dog dare …
A story as well known as this one comes with the burden, or perhaps, the opportunity, of meeting expectations and introducing possibilities.
“What’s kind of amazing is, it’s really written like a screenplay, with just sort of willy-nilly to location shifts and costume changes,” Berresse said of the play, which he added is “a pretty faithful adaptation, but there’s also one enormous change.”
Instead of a voiceover narration, the adult Ralphie (John Shepard) is physically present as the narrator and an integral part of the action.
“Casting an older actor to play adult Ralph was my first decision that I mentioned to Marya,” Berresse said. “Typically. it’s played by a 35- to 40-year-old person, but when you have a senior actor who’s playing that role, talking about his parents when he was a child, he takes on a very different resonance, because that adult man does not have those parents anymore.”
At times, Shepard and Madoni mirror each other’s movements onstage.
“I think there’s a poignancy that emerges when we get very late into the play that people will not necessarily see coming, and I love that,” Berresse said. “So they will hopefully be moved while they’re laughing out loud. And that’s my favorite thing.”
There have been mentions that this production is being created as the start of a holiday tradition for Pittsburgh Public Theater. Demand would seem to indicate that patrons are of the same mind – before previews began this week, the run had already been extended.
Berresse, who was not looking beyond the production at hand, said a beloved story that is a slice of Midwest Americana might seem like a tonic for what ails us in 2022.
“I think everyone in the entire country and in particular, the theater, has been through so much. There’s PTSD,” the director said. “I mean, the world of theater was so tenuous for the last couple of years. To have something that is so joyful and challenging and nuanced to be able to return to has been exciting. I think it’s reminding all of us, everyone at the theater and myself, that we love to do this and we have an opportunity to share something that’s going to spread an immense amount of joy.”
A Christmas Story is at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown, through Nov. 30-Dec. 23. 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays (2 p.m. Deec. 15), 8 p.m. Friday (2 p.m. Dec 23 only), 8 Saturdays (2 p.m. Dec 10 and 17) and 2 p.m. Sundays (7 p.m. Dec 4 and 11). Tickets: www.ppt.org or 412-316-1600.
Categories: Show Previews
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