It’s the most wonderful time of year for many, when decking the halls and buying presents and making Christmas dinner culminates in a treasured idea of merriment.
On the flip side, especially as a kid, inevitable growing pains arise. After all, begging for the perfect present may cause more anxiety than happiness, as will watching parents curse over strings of lights blowing a breaker. It’s just another measure of transition from childhood into young adulthood—and it’s part of the reason why so many adore “A Christmas Story,” written by Jean Shepherd in his 1966 book, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.” Once the essay became a film in 1983, it took on a whole new audience, who since has catapulted its popularity to “holiday tradition.”
Each Christmas the film hits the screen in a 24-hour run on local cable channels. In 2012 it became a Broadway musical and will make its second appearance on a Wilmington stage, thanks to Thalian Association producing its run December 8-17. The show centers around Shepherd’s most memorable Christmas and his desire to attain a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Along the way, we meet his mom, dad and baby brother Randy, as well as his best friend, teacher and even the school-yard bullies. Much appeal of the story comes in how it’s told: The narrator (adult Ralphie) walks the audience through his thoughts and ideas during Christmas 1940, as scenes of his youth pop up and show us his words.
encore interviewed Stuart Pike (narrator/adult Ralphie), who has been on the Wilmington theatre scene for years, and Jakob Gruntfest (young Ralphie), 13, who has been on the scene for two years now. We wanted to find out more about the show and their roles in this holiday classic.
encore (e): Do you have a memory of your own childhood during the holidays that you think parallels “A Christmas Story”?
Stuart Pike (SP): Belk’s in Greensboro had an animated window at Christmas like Higbee’s. Christmas turkey was always present but never eaten by hounds
Jakob Gruntfest (JG): I remember the feeling of going to bed Christmas Eve and my sisters and I being too excited to go to sleep. The scene when we all sing “Somewhere Hovering” is exactly how it feels to be a kid on Christmas Eve. We couldn’t wait to see if Santa brought what we were hoping he would bring to us.
e: Tell me what you love most about your character, Ralphie—as an adult and a child.
SP: As adult Ralphie, the narrator, the way I see and play his character is as a nostalgic reminiscence. As he states at the beginning, this is “the most important” Christmas ever and it is the “journey” that makes it [so]—not that he ultimately gets the gun. His journey is full of awakenings to and about his parents, who are exceptionally tender and poignant.
JG: I love that Ralphie was written to represent the typical kid at Christmastime. He has one thought on his mind: Red Ryder. And he’ll do what needs to be done so he can get it. I love some of the funny lines he has, like the one about Flick seeing grizzly bears outside the candy store.
e: The story is a classic now since the film’s 1983 release. Why do you think people connect with it so much—and with your character?
SP: I’m not sure folks connect that much with Jean from the movie. I know I don’t. Though I am big on classic movies (“Casablanca” is probably my all-time favorite), at Christmas I lean much more to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas.” That said, I think it is the nostalgia a lot of people feel toward a specific Christmas. Folks of my age can remember the “Heartier time.” Kids find it funny, and I dare say a bit uplifting (not the best word), as most all kids are bullied at some point in their lives.
JG: I feel like the film makes people remember their childhood Christmases. Maybe they remember that one toy they wanted but never got. Or it makes them remember [family] nights around the dinner table, discussing how the day went.
e: The audience clearly will want all the nostalgia from the show and your characters. How are you making it your own without mimicking or just impersonating the iconic actors who filled the roles?
JG: I imagine how I would feel in those situations and I morph my own feelings with the ones Ralphie is supposed to be feeling. I have only seen “A Christmas Story” one, so I don’t think I was in danger too much of imitating. But I definitely know how it feels to be a kid!
SP: For Jean there are two things that stand out: First, he is embodied in the musical, where[as] he is just a voice in the movie, so that is very different. There isn’t a Darren McGavin (The Old Man) to mimic. Second, the dialogue for Jean is different and this, along with being present, allows Jean to be a character and not just a voice. At times I become a 10-year-old Ralphie.
e: Yes, let’s talk about that. The show utilizes the narrator shadowing young Ralphie in some of the best ways, like as a cowboy trying to save his love interest, the teacher. To me, personally, it invigorates how live theatre can impact an audience. What about these shadow moments do you find so effective within the story?
JG: Those “fantasy” moments really allow the audience to be in Ralphie’s head—like the spectators get to come along for the ride and experience the feelings of a young boy fantasizing about being a hero. Live theatre is so different from movies and TV; we have to be more creative in telling the story. I think that those sequences help us tell it better.
SP: It allows me to be a kid again. I hope to share with the audience that childlikeness is still and always will be in us. I hope audiences get that.
e: Do you think “A Christmas Story” works as a musical?
JG: Of course! Singing is part of Christmas! Plus, the songs are awesome and catchy. It’s hard not to be happy when you are singing.
SP: Absolutely! From my perspective the music and dialogue changes/additions make the musical more enjoyable than the movie. The tenderness of the mom does not come through in the movie the way it does in the musical, in large part due to her two songs. The old man has two great numbers that are a huge send-up of the character.
As great as Darren McGavin was in this role, nothing can compare to a middle-aged man dancing with his “major award” leg lamp. And who doesn’t love a good tap number especially when it includes kids?
e: What songs really bring to life some of your fave scenes?
JG: “Ralphie to the Rescue” is my favorite, because it’s so upbeat and fun to sing. It involves a lot of the ensemble cast. I also love “Somewhere Hovering” because I love the idea of focus being on a bunch of different kids and the excitement they are feeling on Christmas Eve. It’s so different from the movie’s focus purely on Ralphie—we get to see all types of kids in their beds waiting for Santa.
SP: “Major Award” for its shear over-the-top campiness. “Sticky Situation” because it is the iconic tongue-[stuck]-to-flagpole scene. “Just Like That” for multiple reasons.
Every kid has had an incredibly tender moment with their mom where she, and only she, could be of comfort. Being now a grandparent myself with three adult children, it is so true. “Just like that the moment’s gone…” And Emily Graham as mom sings it beautifully. It is so, so touching. As a big ol’ softy I am going to have to steal myself each night for that one.
e: Anything you’d like me to personally know about the show we haven’t covered? Whether a personal story or how it’s been working with the director and cast?
SP: I had, of course, seen the movie, but I took the time to read the script before auditions. I got to Jean’s final monologue in the play and said, ‘Golly I don’t remember the movie being this poignant, this tender and touching.’ Watching the movie a couple of weeks ago, I realized why: The monologue is not in the movie. But I chose to audition because of that one monologue. It so happens it was the audition piece. [Director] Anthony [Lawson] and [Thalian Association artistic director] Chandler [Davis] obviously liked it, or at least enough to trust me with it. Now I hope I do it justice and audiences connect with it, too.
JG: I have wanted to play this character as soon as I heard Thalian was doing it. Our main soundtrack in the car has been “A Christmas Story” since June (in addition to “Dear Evan Hanson” and “Come From Away”). Have you ever sang Christmas songs in the summer? My sisters did not love it.