No one imagined that the comedy film “A Christmas Story” would become a perennial holiday classic when it was released back in 1983. After all, it didn’t even break $20 million at the box office, and drew respectable but not rapturous reviews from critics.
Adapted from the 1966 novel “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” by Jean Shepherd, who also supplied the film’s whimsical narration, and directed by Bob Clark, “A Christmas Story” revolved around Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), a young Cleveland boy who is determined to get a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas, even though his nervous mother (Melinda Dillon) fears he’ll put his eye out.
But when the cable network TBS started running the film as an annual, 24-hour Christmas Day marathon in 1997, “Story” soared in public esteem to compete with “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the most beloved Christmas movie ever made. That popular appeal eventually led to being adapted into a stage play, which the Sierra Madre Playhouse brought to stunning life last Christmas season.
The production was a runaway hit, prompting its return to the Playhouse stage for an encore run Friday through Dec. 30. Playhouse Artistic Director Christian Lebano notes that such a return run is rare in the hallowed history of the playhouse.
“Before my time, and before our change to focus on American plays about the American experience, the playhouse would revive ‘A Christmas Carol’ every year,” says Lebano. “Since my tenure began, we’ve only tried it with one other holiday show, ‘A Little House Christmas.’ That show wasn’t as substantial as ‘A Christmas Story’ is.
“I would love to see us revive this one every other year,” adds Lebano. “Besides being so funny, it truly speaks to a nostalgia people have for holidays of their past — whether or not those holidays ever were as good as they are remembered.”
There are a couple of particular challenges to the production, as Lebano had to double-cast all seven of the child characters in the show to avoid overworking them during the production’s 30-show run. In addition, set designer Charles Ervin had to figure out how to include such iconic set elements as Higbee’s Department Store and the Santa leg lamp, a feat that was pulled off impressively via the most elaborate sets in the playhouse’s four-decade history.
“This year seems easier in the sense that I didn’t have to re-conceive anything, although we did make a few improvements I ran out of time to incorporate last year,” says Lebano. “Knowing that it worked, that what we put together was successful, did take some of the pressure off.
“We were so lucky that all of the adults wanted to do the show again, because we were teaching the show to so many new kids and not building it organically,” he continues. “It was surprisingly difficult in unexpected ways to get them to understand the style of what we were doing. Also, this set is so massive, there are so many props, that bringing it all back together when we all had an ‘it’s a remount’ mentality to start, has been eye-opening.”
Getting the tone right on the show, particularly the actors’ performance styles, is the biggest challenge for Lebano. He notes that the film’s classic segments require a very specific style of acting that is difficult to impart on young thesbians.
Yet, he has also learned that the show’s moments of connection between characters are more vital to its success than worrying about technical precision at every moment.
“There is a moment in the show that always makes me well up every time, because it makes me think of my parents and their love for me and desire to see me happy,” Lebano explains. “I’ve had so many people comment on those surprising moments. I really love this show and how it works its magic.
“But my favorite memory from the first run was watching our young Ralphie the moment the audience first cheered him when he was doing the cowboy fantasy, which was priceless,” adds Lebano. “Seeing a very young actor ‘get’ what it means to be an actor and the power you have still makes me smile. I had one of those moments as a young actor and I think that’s what set me on this path professionally.”
“A Christmas Story” runs Friday through Dec. 30 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Tickets are $25 to $45. Call (626) 355-4318 or visit sierramadreplayhouse.org.