Dancing leg lamps and a kid who belts the bully
He wants a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot air rifle with a compass and something that tells time, a Christmas item he locks onto in Higbee’s Department Store window that sends him into rapture. But when his mother hears of it, she issues the dreaded phrase. “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
Will he get it?
That’s the premise for the semi-autobiographical story Jean Shepherd wrote that became the holiday movie icon, “A Christmas Story.” Shepherd could wrangle you in his narratives peppered with the absurdities and humor of American life. A radio personality from the 1940s, he did his monologues with a significant pause, a voice inflection and the measured timings that craft storytelling into an art form. He was so good at it that actor, director and producer Bob Clark, who was driving to a date one night, was 45 minutes late because he had to hear Shepherd’s ending. It was about a boy named Flick who was triple-dared into sticking his tongue on a pole during a freezing winter. Eventually, Clark would write the screenplay for “A Christmas Story” with Shepherd, who also acted as narrator for the 1983 movie.
It eventually evolved into a musical, first on Broadway in 2012 that got three 2013 Tony nominations for Best Score, Best Book and Best Musical, then played Madison Square Garden the following year. A first for Long Island, from Dec. 15-27 The Gateway will present “A Christmas Story, The Musical” at the Patchogue Theatre.
The Advance sat down with the show’s director Joseph Minutillo and choreographer Mara Greer for an interview last week.
The movie offers so many gems: a 9-year-old named Ralphie who daydreams a lot, two bullies, a triple-dare resulting in a tongue sticking on a pole during winter, an unbelievably crass leg lamp won by Ralphie’s proud dad, a drunk and crabby Santa and a flock of dogs. Minutillo was asked if he would add anything.
“The musical follows the story line to a T,” Minutillo said. “The set they’re using is the Broadway one, a two-story house with a deep stage — it’s massive. Higbee’s the department store is in there, a Santa slide and a pole for Flick, a classroom.”
Greer, who served as dance captain for both New York productions, actually visited the 1895 Cleveland house used in the movie, now a tourist attraction and an inn.
“I crawled under the sink that Randy, Ralphie’s brother, crouched under,” offered Greer, laughing.
There are eight production numbers with 15 kids and 14 adults. Greer mentioned “a major award” as one showstopper, an homage to the leg lamp Ralphie’s dad wins in a contest. “It starts with Ralphie’s father pulling out the leg lamp, then the community sees it, then, in his fantasy, 15 dancing leg lamps come out. A lot of our big numbers enter into the character’s imagination.”
Scot Patrick Allan, Gateway’s vice president of development and public relations, mentioned the role of teacher Miss Shields, a nice woman who deals with her class’s harmless hijinks; she bursts Ralphie’s bubble about his class theme, What I Want for Christmas, with her C+ grade and note, “P.S. You’ll shoot your eye out.”
“She has to know what a class is like in the 1940s, then has to go into a tap dance in a fantasy scene Ralphie has with her as a lounge singer,” explained Greer. “Holly [Ann Butler] is great. We have a great number in a speakeasy club, where she sings to Ralphie about not getting his BB gun and goes into a wild tap dance.”
The narrator, an adult Ralphie who moves the story along, is James Lloyd Reynolds, who last appeared as Julian Marsh in Gateway’s “42nd Street.”
Greer said the dance scenes aren’t one-adult-then-one-kid production numbers. “The fantasy scenes have both,” she said.
By the way, Greer was in the same University of Michigan class as Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, those powerhouses who wrote music and lyrics for this show. The duo won Golden Globe and Academy awards for best song, “City of Stars,” in “La-La Land” and a Tony Award for best original score for “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Minutillo, who’s taught at Gateway’s School of Performing Arts for over 20 years and directed productions at The Bay Street Theatre as well as The Gateway, praised Greer.
“I’ve taught theatre for 35 years and she’s magical; the kids are enamored of her,” he said.
Could we expect those galloping Bumpus hounds next door to Ralphie’s house, which traipse in regularly, to his father’s chagrin?
“We haven’t figured that out yet, but we expect to,” said Minutillo. “Dogs are an instant crowd-pleaser.”
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