It's one thing to schedule A Christmas Story a year ago. It's another thing to pull it off.
After all, how do the Flat Rock Playhouse directors know that they're going to be able to recruit ten 10-year-old actors to play Flick and Esther Jane and Scut and Randy and above all the indispensable Ralphie?
Not to worry. Their hole card was Clarke MacDonald, a precocious youngster who Playhouse director Vincent Marini and the director of this show, Lisa K. Bryant, had already spotted. When his big brother, Morgan, appeared in the YouTheatre production of School House Rock 3½ years ago, Ralphie memorized all the lines in the show. All the lines. He even memorized the obligatory silence-your-cellphones intro, down to the announcement about using the porta-johns while the men's room was under renovation.
When Bryant told me, "He's a freak," she meant it as high praise in the urban dictionary sense — an extraordinary talent that seems almost otherworldly.
Physically, young Mr. MacDonald made it easy. As soon as wardrobe stuck a pair of oversized Ralphie glasses on his face — presto! — he was Ralphie. The rest he carries off with the skill and professionalism one might expect from a 10-year-old who experienced the filming of a major motion picture in his backyard at age 7.
Scott Treadway as "Ralph" — Ralphie as an adult looking back on that disastrous and magical Christmas — is a likable narrator, pulling the story along on a familiar path. Fans of the movie won't be disappointed. The live performance script adheres faithfully to the movie. The lines we know by heart or scenes we laugh at from muscle memory are here: Randy snorting like a pig as he dives face first into his oatmeal, the Old Man's epic and profane battles with the basement furnace, the snarling bully Scut, the next door neighbors' "785 smelly hound dogs that ignored everybody but my old man," Flick's tongue on the frozen light pole, the Santa disaster, Mrs. Shield's tough grading, the shapely leg lamp.
The show is not perfect.
Act I could have benefited from a few trims and come in at, say, 45 minutes instead of more than an hour. The usually reliable Treadway had more stumbles than Playhouse audiences have come to expect. One might excuse that by appreciating the sheer number of lines if carrying an entire two-hour show were not routine for the veteran star (see The Big Bang, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare or any of the Tuna shows). We're sure those muffs will vanish by the second weekend. Treadway is entertaining, too, in three more quick-change roles — Red Ryder, Christmas tree salesman, deliveryman.
A Christmas Story is propelled by Ralphie's consuming desire for an "official Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock." As Bryant observes in a director's note, Ralphie's quest is a handy framework to show universal themes: "Families are weird. Children love Christmas. Parents want what is best for their children. And being rich has nothing to do with the amount of money in the bank account, or how many gifts are under the tree. It is the imperfections that we remember. It's the stuff that went wrong that makes us laugh years later!"
To the audience's delight, plenty goes wrong.
As Ralphie's mother, Leslie Marie Collins strikes the right balance of quiet strength and infinite forbearance, concealing from the Old Man a secret the whole world knows — that she's the brains of this outfit.
As the Old Man, Gordon McConnell is lovable as an intemperate buffoon — as focused on the Christmas turkey and the illuminated gam as his son is on the Red Ryder rifle.
As Mrs. Shields, Erin Mosher brandishes a red pencil the size of a bazooka and shines as that certain kind of moral polestar we all remember from our school days. A highlight is when she turns into the Wicked Witch to mark down Ralphie's theme to a C-plus and deliver the devastating admonition: "You'll shoot your eye out!"
The young actors come through with strong performances in support of Ralphie, from the painfully shy bladder-sensitive little brother Randy (Trey Shirlin), to the romantic interest, Ester Jane (Marie Danos), to the bully Scut (Rohan Myers) and best friend Flick (Ben Bryner). The show also features Andrew Starr as Schwartz, Isabella Rundell as Helen and ensemble players Gracie Mayer, Nathan Rhodes and Evan Simpson.
The play is not performed with an A and B cast, which means that these elementary school kids (mostly fifth graders) are working eight shows a week.
"I would like to thank all the parents," Bryant said as she introduced the show, "for all the driving back and forth, all the line rehearsals at home and for allowing me to almost abuse their children."
Facing a Main Stage audience of cheering patrons at curtain call, the young actors I'm sure believe that all the hard work is worth it. Go see A Christmas Story and you will think so, too.
Reach Lightning editor Bill Moss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828.698.0407.