Twice told tale 

A Christmas Story tells it like it was

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a good example of a movie that nearly everybody has seen, based on a book that practically no one has read. Fast Times at Ridgemont High was, in fact, a book for barely a year before it was overshadowed by the hugely popular (and, I think, completely wonderful) movie based on author Cameron Crowe’s undercover reportage of high school life circa 1980. Tell people Fast Times is also a book and they often assume it’s one of those “based on the box-office blockbuster” jobbies, but no, no, no. It’s very funny and poignant—not exactly Thomas Hardy or anything, but I still pick it up idly and poke around in my favorite parts at least once a year. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I’ve ever actually sat down and read it cover to cover, but I know it almost by heart anyway.

Almost everything in the movie is lifted word for word from the book. Some of the events—like the Spicoli pizza incident or Brad Hamilton’s topple from the top of the fast food chain—are conflated from two or three other incidents, but reading the unadapted adventures of the Fast Times crew with Sean Penn and Judge Reinhold and the other film characters in mind is very comforting. It’s a little like treating yourself to a director’s cut or a collector’s edition DVD with lots of bonus footage and deleted scenes. The book and movie are complementary in this respect—and talk about great casting.

The MCT production of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story is like this, too. Fewer people have read anything by Jean Shepherd than have seen the movie (as movies go, it’s second only to The Sound of Music in the wouldn’t-be-Christmas-without-it department), and that’s exactly what makes the play so enjoyable. You don’t go to see a play at all; you go to see your favorite parts from the movie acted out by live performers.

Sure, there’s going to be a couple of things you don’t remember from the movie, because they weren’t even in the movie. Just two things, really—a dash of third-grade romance between Ralphie and one of his classmates, Ester Jean, and the presence of another tough and precocious classmate. She’s played by a precocious young actress, Emily Peregine, who was also charming as one of two squabbly siblings in one of the better senior movies produced by the UM Media Arts department this year. Tutti-Frutti, I think it was called.

The presence of more girls in the MCT production doesn’t really do much for the stage adaptation of A Christmas Story except provide two additional parts for girls. The performances are just fine, but the parts neither pad out the story nor dramatically expand on it by redirecting Ralphie’s attention into areas besides the ones viewers are probably well familiar with: namely, how to negotiate the minefield of pre-holiday obstacles to getting a BB gun.

The additional parts, however, do supply additional mouths in which to place the most famous line from the movie: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Very few characters get by without saying this—fewer than I remember from the movie, which I admit I haven’t seen for two or three years—and the effect is always the same. Talk about fishing for laughs. Given the movie savvy of the audience, it’s more like shooting fish in a barrel, but the line produces peals of laughter every single time. As do faithful reenactments of other movie highlights: the Old Man’s pathetic excitement about his “Major Award” (a leg-shaped lamp in a fishnet stocking—one of the most quizzical humor concoctions in any movie ever, if you ask me), Ralphie’s brother Randy’s porcine eating habits and insistent piping of “I have to go wee-wee,” and, of course, Ralphie’s obsessive repetition of “I want an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time!”

So, of course, your enjoyment of the play depends on your patience for the movie, a low-budget yin to the yang of It’s a Wonderful Life that was adapted for the screen from humorist Shepherd’s 1983 reminiscences of his 1940s childhood. A Christmas Story, with Shepherd himself as the narrator, didn’t bust any blocks on its initial release, but has since become such a part of the holiday movie pantheon that TV stations have actually played it over and over again all day long on Christmas day.

The incessant deconstruction of third-grade lore and ritual gets a bit wearisome and too precious at times—while we’re on the subject, the “meatloaf and red cabbage” refrain gets repeated a few too many times, too—but that’s not necessarily this production’s fault. Such are the tools of the trade in homespun Hoosier humor, a la Shepherd and Kin Hubbard.

At any rate, for those who cherish the Shepherd story, the MCT production is as delightful as you’d expect—and, as explained, you do know exactly what to expect. Not much to add in the way of innovations, but beneath the familiar jokes the wishful themes emerge pretty much like they did in the movie. I’ve always appreciated two themes most about A Christmas Story, and those are secret covenants with one parent—in this case, the mother—and living with a good-naturedly crabby father whose hidden wishes and aspirations you learn a little more about as you grow older. Coming to appreciate them as people, in other words, and not just as parents. For anyone who has ever tried to plumb a parent’s sense of humor by noting what they laugh at most on TV and trying to somehow replicate it in real life, this second idea should be readily understood. And that, to me, is what this Christmas story is all about.

A Christmas Story runs Dec. 18—22 at Missoula Children’s Theatre. Shows are at 8 PM Wednesday through Saturday, 6:30 PM on Sunday, with 2 PM matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Call the MCT box office at 728-PLAY for more information.

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