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It'll get you in the holiday spirit 

A review of the Rep's "A Christmas Story.

click to enlarge RED RYDER: Brothers Joe and Max McCurdy star as Ralphie and Randy Parker, with Justin R.G. Holcomb as The Old Man and Claire Brownell as Mother in The Rep's production of Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story," showing through Christmas Day.
  • RED RYDER: Brothers Joe and Max McCurdy star as Ralphie and Randy Parker, with Justin R.G. Holcomb as The Old Man and Claire Brownell as Mother in The Rep's production of Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story," showing through Christmas Day.

For a film that has become an annual family viewing staple for about 20 Christmases now, "A Christmas Story" had some pretty salacious beginnings. Jean Shepherd, an American writer, actor and radio personality, first published his stories about growing up in Hammond, Ind., in the late 1930s and early 1940s in none other than Playboy in the mid-'60s. When Shepherd read one of these stories ("Flick's Tongue") on the historic WOR Talk Radio out of New York City in 1968, low-budget B-movie director Bob Clark listened along, riveted. He became passionate about making a movie from Shepherd's tales; unfortunately, with his less-than-stellar status in Hollywood, Clark couldn't convince any studio to make the movie. Then along came "Porky's." In 1981, Clark directed the teenage sex-romp that would become the fifth-highest grossing film of 1982. Suddenly Clark had clout, and when he was asked to make "Porky's 2," he agreed, on one condition — that he could make "A Christmas Story" first. Thus, a week before Thanksgiving 1983, Clark's dream was released to the world.

Thank goodness Clark was able to bring that film to fruition, because otherwise I would not have had the stellar time I experienced Saturday night at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. The stage adaptation of the classic (directed by Mark Shanahan, script by Philip Grecian) runs through Christmas Day, and is well-worth suspending your holiday shopping for a couple of hours — and stealing a few of Santa's dollars — to get to see this fabulous show.

Walking into the lobby, I heard classic holiday tunes sung by quintessential crooners piped into the decidedly festive air. While the repetitive melodies and hackneyed lyrics in Christmas songs tend to annoy me, even a Grinch like me can't resist the simple "Happy Holidays" and the iconic "Santa Baby" when it's Bing Crosby and Eartha Kitt doing the singing. And what better soundtrack could you hope for while taking pictures in front of the "I <3 The Rep" backdrop? My heart actually grew a size, seeing the families, couples and, well, darn-near everyone taking snaps of themselves, laughing at the gaiety of it all.

As soon as I walked into the house, my heart grew yet another size as I admired the staggering attention to detail that set designer Mike Nichols brought to the production. Period pendant lights hung from antiqued chains in the kitchen and the front entrance of the Parker family home. Tacky wallpaper in all the rainbow of 1940s browns adorned the walls, both upstairs and down (the second level showcases Ralphie's bedroom, creating visual interest and depth). Even the floors were worthy of note, with checkerboard "linoleum" in the kitchen and "hardwood planks" in the living area. To the right and left of the home were fences perfect for backing up the story's outdoor scenes, and hanging above it all was a high border curtain, shapes of rooftops cut in silhouette, framing a beautifully crafted stage. And the costumes? You try not to laugh when pudgy Ralphie struts across the stage in a glittering, snow-white cowboy shirt and hat or when Mrs. Shields cackles as the Wicked Witch of the West, complete with Mother-as-flying-monkey at her side.

But all of this mood- and scene-setting would have been for naught if the acting was less than top-notch. Luckily, top-notch acting is exactly what I got. The cast was perfect; Hayes Polk as Scut Farkus was despicable, Jessica Horton as Esther Jane was charming, and Justin R.G. Holcomb as The Old Man deserves a review of his very own, with an elastic face that had me rolling in the aisles. John Ottavino as the grown-up Ralph, who narrates the entire story and never, to my recollection, leaves the stage — is dynamic, with a line load unlike any I've seen to date, and the flexibility to play everything from a delivery man to a neighbor to Red Ryder. His voice is gravelly and comforting, and I could've listened to him talk all night. As a matter of fact, I did. And my heart grew that third and final size.

Look, it's true enough that you can catch the 24-hour marathon of the movie on TBS beginning at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. In fact, you can even watch it from the Parker family house from the movie, if you want to bid on that opportunity on eBay (warning: current bid is over $5,000). But to really experience the joy and humor of family, of growing up and just really wanting that Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, you better get on down to The Rep before "A Christmas Story"  is over for good; there's no guarantee of a yearly marathon there.

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