Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
“A Christmas Story” the Musical? – Covina Center’s version works up to a point
There are several forms of live theater which thrive in this general area. They range from the fully professional, with polished productions and highly trained casts, through the small-stage venues where the community supports seasons aimed at their interests, with a combination of old pros and newer talents working toward making a name for themselves. Then there are the true community playhouses which offer a chance for people who love to perform to do so, nurture children with talent, and do so for the love of the thing on small budgets but large doses of enthusiasm. Sometimes these companies can have rough edges, but there is a genuine quality to the enthusiasm of their audiences and the vibrance on stage which is a core element of what theater is for.
Which brings me to the new production at Covina Center for the Performing Arts. As the holidays close in, and theatrical companies look for something festive to draw a family audience, I always look for the theaters doing something less usual. There will be several renditions of “A Christmas Carol,” of course, but at CCPA they’ve opted instead for a staged, and musical version of a modern classic film. Hence, “A Christmas Story – the Musical”. That tale of Ralphie, a small town midwestern boy in the late 1940s doing everything he can to make Santa deliver a Red Ryder BB gun, has become a holiday staple itself. This live version offers that same simple and nostalgic quality which makes the film charming. Here it is done in true community spirit, with all the energy, but some of the inconsistency, which makes community theater unique.
Jim Follett leads the cast as Jean Shepherd, the narrator of the piece, looking back on the most tangled, but in many ways most wonderful Christmas of his childhood. Tony Quinn gives The Old Man (Ralphie’s dad) the combination of overt frustration and internal warmth which often makes him the quiet hero of the tale. Veronique Merrill Warner sings well, and provides the balance of practicality and kindness which you know makes that household run. Shannon Page also sings well, and has some signature moments, as Ralphie’s teacher.
Among the kids, Jackson Capitano is absolutely perfect as Ralphie’s somewhat goofy friend Flick, and Kaden Cutler makes good as Ralphie’s other pal, Schwartz. Paul Anderson and Sean Hill make decent, if somewhat self-conscious playground bullies. Gilbert Aguirre, as Ralphie’s little brother, makes the snow suit scene a thing of beauty and often shines in even ensemble scenes. The one questionable bit of casting is Ralphie himself. Why did they cast a girl in the part?
Don’t get me wrong, Kiera Ward sings beautifully, and handles the constant spouting of the tongue-twisting “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time” as well as any kid could, but she lacks that sort of rough-and-tumble carriage so stereotypical of boys of the 40s and 50s. Most specifically there is literally no punch to Ralphie’s eventual tussle with the bullies he can no longer take. Rather, she has Ralphie “fight like a girl” when he most needs to completely let go of his bundled frustrations.
This is not Miss Ward’s fault, but must be laid at the feet of the co-directors, Wendy Friedman and especially Osbaldo Alvarado, who teaches acting to youngsters at the acting school next door to the theater. If a girl must be cast, for vocal skills or whatever, then significant movement training should have been part of the gig.
The large surrounding ensemble is enthusiastic and for the most part sings and dances well. The choreography by Emily Dauwalder highlights the skills of the performers, and keeps the company’s tendency to sing while walking back and forth across the front of the stage at bay somewhat. Kudos to the unlisted costumer of the piece, who has recreated period, class and time of year without overdoing it. The functional, multi-piece set is shuffled from scene to scene with lightning quickness by one of the fastest and best “choreographed” group of stage hands I’ve seen in a long time. There’s even a slide for Santa’s rejects, when needed. Tyler Wigglesworth’s musical direction, aided by pre-recorded instrumentals, keeps the musical portions fairly sharp.
In short, “A Christmas Story – the Muslcal” proves entertaining if not perfect. The warmth of the audience is also worthy of note – the kind of an audience which feels so at home someone actually shouted from the audience during the curtain call “That’s my aunt!” when one of the performers came forward. This is what true community theater has always been about. So, what the heck. Go be community. Don’t expect consistent polish, but do expect heart. And around the holidays, that can often count for a lot.
What: “A Christmas Story – the Musical” When: Through December 13 (excluding Thanksgiving weekend), 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $22 general, $32 luxury balcony (website pricing is incorrect) Info: (626) 331- 8133 or http://www.covinacenter.com