‘Tis the season of turkey dinners, candy canes, elves, gifts aplenty, and giving back to others. Oh, and the 24-hour marathon of that classic tale we’ve all grown to love, “A Christmas Story.” In Wilmington folks will be able to enjoy it in a new light—and much earlier than Christmas day—thanks to City Stage. Co.’s presentation of “A Christmas Story the Musical,” set to open this weekend, November 21.
Directed by theatre veteran Debra Gillingham, and including a cast heavy in kids and adults, the show highlights everything great about the holidays through a child’s eye. “It’s about Christmas and family, and a little boy’s wish for something special,” Gillingham says.
The story follows Ralphie and his quest to secure a Red Ryder carbine action, 200-shot range, model air rifle (a.k.a. BB gun) under the tree on Christmas morning. His mother’s concern, “you’ll shoot your eye out,” and his dad’s advocacy, “every little boy needs a BB gun,” are only part of a slew of zany antics that carry the show through a host of hilarious scenarios.
With music and lyrics written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Joseph Robinette, the musical first toured in 2009. The script and score were revised before it opened on Broadway in 2012.
“The music is deceptively tricky,” Gillingham says. “Lots of syncopation, changing keys, and a lot more dialogue was woven into the songs.”
“The music adds layers to the characters that were not fleshed out in the movie,” musical director Michael Laureicella adds. “It’s refreshing to delve deeper into the family dynamics.”
Through solos, duets and ensemble numbers, audiences will see more compassion from Ralphie’s mom, Mrs. Parker (Heather Setzler), and the depth of brotherhood between Ralphie (Carson Holmes) and Randy (Abel Zukerman). As well, they’ll garner a few more surprises with “The Old Man” (Ralphie’s father, played by JR Rodriguez) and his famed leg-lamp obsession.
“My favorite song is ‘Before the Old Man Comes Home,’” Lauricella says. “Sung by Carson, Abel, Heather and JR, it is the catalyst that brings the entire family together in their moment of crisis—the crisis being the broken leg lamp.”
“Family bonds are universal and the audience should be able to really relate to these beautifully written musical moments,” Gilingham remarks.
More numbers animate and engage, as seen in The Old Man’s flat-tire scene (“Oh, Fudge”), Flick’s double-dog dare in the school yard (“Sticky Situation”), and especially through the fantasies of Ralphie (“Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun”). Though Gillingham never watched the film before staging the show, she’s steered clear from screening it more than once, in order to breathe new life into the stage version. “I want our cast and staff to make it our own,” she claims.
Former Wilmington mayor Harper Peterson will play the show’s narrator Jean Shepherd. Shepherd penned the original book and short story, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” which inspired his 1983 film script. Shepherd’s role onstage is more profound than just his onscreen voice-over. “He makes the show work,” Gillingham says. “[Harper] carries a lot on his shoulders, but his work is thoughtful, warm and spot-on.”
Penny Kohut will play Ralphie’s teacher, Mrs. Shields, in the big tap-number, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.” Ten kids will hit the stage with her to round out Ralphie’s classmates. “I remember seeing the number on the Tony Awards a couple of years ago,” Gillingham recalls. “It brought down the house; I think our kids and Penny will do the same.”
The time frame of “A Christmas Story” is an integral piece in portraying innocence. Gillingham is working with Terry Collins of Scenic Asylum to take on the challenge of a set design that represents the 1940s. Props have been secured with the help of City Stage Co. artistic director Nick Gray and costumes by Isabel Zermani.
“I love doing historical research for a production, whether I am directing or performing,” she notes. “I created an 18-page study guide for my cast, with facts about Mr. Shepherd, WOR radio, Hammond, Indiana [Shepherd’s hometown, on which the story is based], Higbee’s Department Store, Red Ryder, Black Bart, and more.”
It all evokes a simpler time in life—without the instant gratification of technology ever present. “The country was just recovering from the Depression, and even the little things in life were sometimes hard to come,” Gillingham says. “With today’s over-commercialization of the holidays, I think it’s a refreshing look at how our country and lives used to be.”
“The music has a definite nod to the old-style musical, with a dash of surprise and reverence,” Lauricella says. “It presents some simple tunes in a clever way. It’s light, fun, and engaging.”
The orchestra consists of Harry McLamb (trumpet), Torree McLamb (flute), Shiela Hardison (clarinet), Steve Williams (keyboard), and Pete Frank (drums). Dallas Lafon will design lighting, with Will Burns and Clarissa Thomas heading sound. Choreography has been created by Kendra Goehring-Garrett.
In the season’s give-back spirit—and in connecting back to the Salvation Santa in the script—City Stage Co.’s “A Christmas Story the Musical” will have a Salvation Army volunteer onsite, red kettle in tow. “All donations collected during show’s run will be given to the Salvation Army,” Gillingham notes. “It is the season of giving, so I hope our audiences will be generous.”
A Christmas Story the Musical
City Stage Co.
21 N. Front St. – 5th Floor
Nov. 21-23, 28-30, Dec. 5-7
Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.