When Phil Addis first saw “A Christmas Story” in 1983, he had it pegged as a holiday classic. Although it had a relatively lackluster box office performance when it was released, repeated TV showings of the nostalgic look at a boy’s Christmas in the mid-20th century helped it become a classic indeed.
On Thursday, the stage version of “A Christmas Story” comes to the Weber Center for the Performing Arts for a two week run, thanks to the La Crosse Community Theatre and Addis, who is directing the show.
Addis and the LCT go way back. He’s been involved in 54 productions, starting with “Oklahoma!” in 1973 and most recently with parts in “And Then There Were None,” “Billy Elliot,” “Wit” and “12 Angry Men.” He was keen to help bring “A Christmas Story” to the stage as director because he feels a connection to the show.
“This story has become a part of our culture because of the simplicity and the lost innocence,” Addis said. “We are moving in fast forward. Our society is out of touch. That is why this story has become a classic. We long for and wish at times that life could slow down and be this simple. And with this show, for a couple of hours, you can do that.”
Based on humorist Jean Shepherd’s writings, “A Christmas Story” centers on a 9-year-old Indiana boy, Ralphie Parker, who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. As the magical day approaches, though, it seems his dearest wish will come true as nearly everyone tells him he’ll shoot his eye out. The movie has all kinds of deft touches that bring Ralphie’s world to life, from the school chums and bullies he deals with on the playground to the department store Santa visit to the spot-on classroom scenes and the old-school parenting.
The characters and scenes in the movie version of “A Christmas Story” have become so iconic that a stage version faces a daunting task, but the adaptation is a respectful homage, knowing that it just wouldn’t work without the pole on the playground scene, the tire-changing scene where Ralphie drops the lug nuts, the visit to Santa and the Old Man getting his special prize and spewing profane sounding gibberish.
“There are some scenes that everyone has grown to love and expects to see. They won’t be let down,” Addis said. “But understand, we don’t have people that specifically resemble the actors on screen. And we don’t need to. The audience will be drawn into this cast. It is a very talented group of principal actors, with a strong supporting and ensemble cast. I have simply asked the cast not to worry about themselves, but, follow the script and your characters will take you on the journey.”
Dan Radtke, who has been doing LCT shows for about 12 years, wanted the part of adult Ralph, the narrator, about as badly as young Ralphie wants the BB gun. “It’s the only part I auditioned for,” he said. “It’s the only part I wanted.”
Unlike the movie, where the narrator’s voice (which belongs to Jean Shepherd) chimes in to comment bemusedly and knowingly on the action, Radtke will be both heard and seen. In the stage version, the narrator floats through the action like a ghost, seen only by the audience.
The narrator in the stage version also has more work, Radtke noted, as he has to set some scenes verbally that needed no words in the movie because they were set up visually.
Radtke shares Addis’s affection for the simpler time portrayed in “A Christmas Story” and the nostalgia it triggers. He is definitely feeling some pressure to nail his part.
“The guy in the movie does such a perfect job of it. So what a great challenge to put my own color to that voice,” Radtke said. “My goal is not to do better than him. My goal is to respect it. The whole thing is to add what I can honestly to the part so that people aren’t disappointed.”
Addis double cast the part of Ralphie because it’s a big part for a younger actor, and he settled on Beckett Cottrell and Carter Mandell to play the part brought to life in the movie by Peter Billingsly. Lynn Schulze and Josh Miner play Ralphie’s parents, while Isidore Thomsen plays his younger brother, Randy.
“They have such a great cast for this show,” Radtke said. “Both the Ralphies look just like Ralphie. The dad is irascible. The mom’s the perfect mom.”
Addis predicted that the LCT staging of “A Christmas Story” will offer the same nostalgic magic conjured in the big screen version.
“The audience will see the pure innocence, love, anticipation and passion that a child exerts while waiting to open that ultimate gift sitting under the Christmas tree,” he said. “We all have had a Christmas story that was special, that we can talk about. Hopefully, this production will rekindle some fond memories of a Christmas past.”