Dec 7, 2019
by Jeanie K. Smith , San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
The theatrical theme this holiday season seems to be Fun with a capital F, with shows that chase away melancholy and anxiety in favor of warmth, charm, and laughter. A Christmas Story, the Musical presented by Sonoma Arts Live is no exception, delivering as much fun as it can muster, adding a dose of nostalgia and impossibly cute (and talented!) children.
Based on the 1983 film that became a Christmas favorite in the ‘90s, as well as the book by Jean “Shep” Shepherd that inspired it (In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash), the musical captures 1940’s Americana and the innocence of childhood wrapped up in a loving look at an imperfect family’s imperfect, but ultimately wonderful Christmas. The story centers on 9-year-old Ralphie (Tuolumne Bunter) and his obsession with the one Christmas gift he desires: a Red Ryder Carbine-Action BB gun. In“Ralphie to the Rescue,” his fantasies focus on rescuing damsels from evil criminals, garnering him hero status and hometown accolades.
Certain his parents won’t approve, Ralphie launches an arduous campaign to persuade The Old Man (Rick Love) and Mother (Morgan Harrington) that he deserves this awesome gift. Mom can only say, “Oh no, you’ll shoot your eye out,” the eternal refrain of all moms regarding BB guns; and Dad’s preoccupied with seeking his own fame in puzzle contests (“The Genius on Cleveland Street”). Ralphie enlists his little brother Randy (Joseph Atchley), his teacher Miss Shields (ScharyPearl Fugitt), numerous school chums and even Santa in his quest.
Contending with the school bully Scut Farkus (Ty Schoeningh) and his henchman Dill (Mario Alioto) interrupts Ralphie’s crusade, as does a school incident that becomes legendary involving classmate Flick (Marco Perez) and a flagpole. An adult Ralphie, presumably Jean Shepherd himself (George Bereschik), provides clever narration underscoring the nostalgia of the earlier era with gentle irony and humorous asides. An ode to familial love, growing up and the seasonal alchemy that generates joy, the musical elicits both laughter and heart tugs, ensuring its place in the holiday pantheon of shows.
Sonoma Arts Live pulls together a talented ensemble of adults and youth, all of whom perform tirelessly in multiple roles throughout. Director Larry Williams and music directorCat Austin provide many opportunities for each of them to shine in comic moments and vocal solos. Standouts include Fugitt as a madcap schoolteacher, joined by Alioto in an amazing tap-dance number (“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”); and Schoeningh, Perez, andColter Martin as classmates. Adorable Joseph Atchley as Randy threatens to steal the show.
Without a doubt, the star of the show is Bunter as Ralphie, whose stellar talent is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving, totally winning us over with his comic skills, delightful demeanor, and outstanding vocals. This is a young performer to watch, hopefully often, his performance is worth the price of admission.
Harrington’s lovely voice appeals in “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That,” and anchors duets with Love, whose amateur vocals are compensated for in his spot-on characterization of the hapless Old Man. Bereschik supplies affable humor and the requisite message.
Choreography by Lissa Ferreira deserves special mention for huge, complex ensemble numbers;Michella Snider created the choreography for the awesome tap dancing.Janis Snyder does an incredible job with literally dozens of costumes for each performer, all of whom have numerous quick changes. It’s a monumental task, fulfilled to great satisfaction. Scenic designers Michael Walraven andRobert Dougherty also get a workout, supplying an amusing 1940s living room plus myriad set pieces to define a legion of locales. Kudos to prop masterNancy Vandegrift and set dresser Jaime Love who deliver a boatload of terrific touches.
Put the Fun in your holiday with this amusing show designed to entertain and make your season a little brighter.
Music & Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, Book by Joseph Robinette
Presented by Sonoma Arts Live through December 22, 2019
Thu/Fri/Sat at 7:30pm, Sun at 2:00pm
Photos by Miller Oberlin
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