"A Christmas Story" at 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

“A Christmas Story” adapted by Philip Grecian, based on Jean Shepherd’s original stories
Presented at 6th Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theater

Photo by Eric Chazankin - From left, standing:
Kim Williams, John David Vozaitis, Chris Schloemp, Ari Vozaitis

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Oh, What Fun - Holiday High Jinks at 6th Street

We are SO in the mood for the holidays, and the folks at 6th Street Playhouse are serving up a grand kickoff to the season with “A Christmas Story”. It’s a night of golden memories indeed, as befitting this time of year. Will Ralphie shoot his eye out? Will the Old Man get to keep his jazzy leg lamp? Will the neighbor’s dogs get the Christmas turkey? If you’re in need of a pick-me-up, or just want to indulge in a heartwarming blast of holiday spirit, bundle the family on down to 6th Street.

This official stage adaptation by noted playwright Philip Grecian is based on the beloved 1983 film classic, which garnered a cult following and marathon TV runs each holiday season. The film, in turn, was based on a semi-autobiographical collection of stories by legendary teller of tales, Jean Shepherd. The story is set in 1938, that innocent year before Hitler invaded Poland and the start of World War II. It’s also the year the Red Ryder BB Gun first appeared on the scene and became the Holy Grail for nine-year-old Ralphie Parker.

“A Christmas Story” is told from Ralphie’s point of view as narrated by his grown-up self, Ralph (Mark Bradbury), who shares memories of his offbeat family life. Bradbury is an animated and engaging tour guide for Ralphie’s recollections of the Parker household as they get ready for “the best Christmas ever”. Ralphie (John David Vozaitis) is a highly imaginative kid, and his flights of fancy are staged in whimsical fantasy sequences throughout the show. Vozaitis took awhile to settle into his role, but eventually nails it and carries the show. Ralphie’s endearingly quirky father “The Old Man” (Chris Schloemp) is firmly at the center of Ralph’s recollections, doing battle with the furnace, the Oldsmobile and marauding packs of dogs. Ralphie’s stalwart mother (Kim Williams) and his eccentric little brother Randy (Ari Vozaitis) provide lovable comic support. His little friend Esther Jane (Alyssa Jirrels) knows how to tug at our heartstrings, and Ralphie’s.

Director Bronwen Shears is noted for her beautifully sensitive work in “Intimate Apparel” at 6th Street’s Studio Theater earlier this year. In “Christmas Story”, she proves her versatility by delivering a strong and creative interpretation of the gag-filled script. Shears employs the same storytelling technique used with “Apparel”, but has more space for expression in the larger GK Hardt Theater. The nice little comic vignettes and touching scenes are highly effective on the multi-level set. Working with young children onstage is not easy, but Shears has an excellent crop of talent to harvest in this piece - seven kids - and the results are sheer delight.

The “Christmas Story” cast and artistic staff have created a sweetly sentimental but wickedly funny show of the highest caliber. The single set by Paul Gilger serves multiple locales: inside the Parker home, outside on the street, and even Ralphie’s classroom, with help from actors wheeling set pieces on and off stage. The hilarious family car, a venerable Oldsmobile, is a sight that must be seen to be believed, and has the audience shrieking with merriment. Production issues in the show’s second performance are minor and will likely disappear: sound problems in the first act; the need of better follow-through with pantomime and clearer scene transitioning from fantasy to reality.

For most of us, the holidays mean observing time-honored traditions, because remembering what has gone before us is a way to find continuity within our lives. “A Christmas Story”, Jean Shepherd’s humorous, affectionate tribute to bygone America as he remembers it, is a fresh and entertaining way to connect with the past and find joy in the present. What better way to begin the holiday season?

When: Now through December 23, 2011
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
8 p.m. Thursdays December 1, 15 and 22
8 p.m. Wednesday December 21
2 p.m. Saturdays November 26 and December 17
Tickets: $15 to $32
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – GK Hardt Theatre, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com