By Sharon Eberson
If you triple-dog-dared me to write a one-word review of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s A Christmas Story, The Play, I would be required to leave you with: “Delightful.”
But with no one twisting my arm – I’m talking to you, Scut Farkas – I have a few more choice words of praise for this lavish new production.
The Public has out-done itself, unwrapping a gift that boasts the most elaborate set pieces I can recall on the O’Reilly Theater stage, with an experience that begins even before you walk through the doors. That’s where you’ll find a giant, fully-lit leg lamp, standing tall as both photo opp and beacon of things to come.
Whether you are among the multitude of fans of A Christmas Story, the movie, or somehow new to the annual TV marathon presenting this beloved slice of smalltown Americana, the Public’s production is bound to surpass expectations.
Based on stories by humorist Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story is set in Indiana, circa 1940, at Christmastime, when the Parker family – 9-year-old Ralphie, younger brother Randy and his harried parents – are about to have a memorable Christmas marked by a series of minor disasters and meaningful triumphs.
The script for stage does not skimp on scene changes, and the production follows suit, giving the O’Reilly turntable a workout. Scenic designer Tim Mackabee, part of the creative team on Broadway’s Tony-nominated Frozen, here unveils a new wow factor with every rotation of that turntable – the Higbee’s Department Store scene, slide et. al, rated its own applause on opening night.
Directed with a keen balance of adult nostalgia and childhood glee by Michael Berresse, the production leans into the wild and wacky of Ralphie and his eccentric family, as well as the warming glow of narration by John Shepard. As the Adult Ralphie, long-time Pittsburgh pro Shepard moves deftly in and out of the action, with the twinkle in his eyes matched by the sparks of energy all around him.
Mad dashes, childish squeals and schoolyard antics are provided in heaping helpings by a group of talented local youngsters in swirls of activity, topped off by the masterful physical comedy of Tim McGeever’s Old Man and Jamie Agnello’s wise and doting Mother.
The pair are at the top of their games as the harried parents of Ralphie, played by Sebastian Madoni, and Will Chambers as younger brother Randy, both among several Pittsburgh CAPA kids in the cast.
Sixth-grader Madoni, with a leading role in his first full production, makes quite a debut splash as the kid who will stop at nothing to obtain his fondest desire: a Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle.
Colin Bozick, a sixth-grader at Mellon Middle School, has a handful of theater credits and is properly annoying and endearing as Flick. The dare that gets Bozick’s character in trouble is a particularly well-executed scene that earned prolonged applause from a crowd that included one person in a head-to-toe pink bunny suit.
Eamonn McElfresh as bully Scut Farkas, Suraya Love Collins as Ester Jane, Zora Rose as Helen and Charlie Julian Stull as Schwartz are among the child actors staying up late in this two-hour show, plus an intermission, and seemingly having the time of their lives.
A must for any telling of A Christmas Story is the “major award” that comes into the Parker family’s lives. The lamp with fringed shade and a fishnet-stockinged leg as a base arrives as a contest prize for the Old Man. He cherishes it and proudly displays it in the front window, while his wife is scandalized by this unholy thing.
The lamp plays a big part in a wordless scene, among my favorites and skillfully executed with precision by McGeever and Agnello. All you need to know is it also involves a sandwich, and provides one of many opportunities for McGeever — a former Broadway performer who played Zazu in the national tour of The Lion King — to raise frantic to an art form. Agnello, the opposing force to his relative chaos, masters the art of keeping calm while carrying on.
Hope M. Anthony, as teacher Miss Shields, has a showcase scene of her own involving Ralphie’s inner thoughts. Projections, light and sound effects propel Ralphie — and us — to the Wild West and through a jungle, performing heroic deeds with that rifle he hopes to get on Christmas. Anthony’s classroom scene with Madoni, also born of Ralphie imagining a stellar reaction to his Christmas essay, is, dare I say, delightfully zany.
I could go on, but suffice it to say that I entered wondering, how many versions of A Christmas Story does one really need in their life? There’s the beloved 1983 movie, of course, and a 2013 Tony Award-nominated musical with songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Did I really need A Christmas Story, The Play, too?
Based on the production at Pittsburgh Public Theater, I’m delighted to say the answer is, “Absolutely.”
I triple dog dare anyone to disagree,
A Christmas Story is at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown, through December 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.
Theater for All
On opening night Saturday, Pittsburgh Public Theater announced the initiative Theater For All, with the aim of offering free tickets to every future Season 48 mainstage production will be available. A month before each show opens, the Public will hold a “Free For All,”with a limited number of free tickets released on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets can be claimed by using a promo code online or by calling 412-316-1600. Promo codes will be published at ppt,org and on social media at the start of each “Free For All.” Inspired by Bricolage Theater Company, the initiative’s aims is to “help reduce barriers to the arts for people who otherwise may not attend.”