A funny, nostalgic look at Christmas past

PLAY REVIEW /// ‘A Christmas Story’


GIFT WISH—Patrick Geringer, left, plays Ralphie and Austin Robert Miller is Jean Shepherd/narrator in the musical version of thefilm, “A Christmas Story,” at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. Courtesy of Will Shupe

GIFT WISH—Patrick Geringer, left, plays Ralphie and Austin Robert Miller is Jean Shepherd/narrator in the musical version of thefilm, “A Christmas Story,” at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. Courtesy of Will Shupe

Whoever thought a holiday tale about the desire to own a gun could be so heartwarming and funny? That’s indeed the crux of “A Christmas Story,” New York radio announcer Jean Shepherd’s humorously nostalgic look back at a particular Christmas when he was growing up in upstate Indiana in 1940.

The tale was part of Shepherd’s 1966 book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” then fashioned into a cult film favorite in 1983. In 2012 it was transformed into a Broadway musical, which is being staged by Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi through Dec. 23.

Director Will Shupe knows a thing or two about knockabout comedy, having starred in countless such productions at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. For this production he was fortunate to cast Austin Robert Miller in the lead role as Shepherd, who narrates the childhood exploits of his alter ego Ralphie Parker, a boy desperate to get a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas.

Miller is used to playing meatier roles, but his genius comes through every moment he is onstage in “A Christmas Story.” As Shepherd, he is constantly reacting as the characters play out his memories, perhaps trying to affect the outcome and make it different than he remembered it.

Most touching are Shepherd’s recollections about his parents. Although you could easily subtitle this show “It’s a Wonderful Air Gun,” what it’s really about is his parents’ love and protection of their family.

Miller even gets into the action himself, injecting Shepherd into some of the lavish production numbers, high-stepping with his lanky legs or delivering mail to the Parker household. Your eyes are always aware of where Miller is and what he is doing.

Twelve-year-old Patrick Geringer plays Ralphie and commands the stage with an easy confidence, an accurate singing voice and astute comic timing for one so young. He makes a good pair with his stage brother, Lucas Panczel, who plays Randy. As the boys’ mother, Megan Ruble is the mom every kid should have: warm, understanding, but not too protective to the point of stifling a boy’s adventurousness.

Kevin Ellis brilliantly expands the role of “The Old Man” beyond the sketchy details we are given about Ralphie’s dad. He is prone to outbursts of colorful profanity, but is happiest when working on one of his many crossword puzzles. Ellis’ performance brings to mind how Steve Martin might have played it, showing how Mr. Parker is possibly compensating for a lack of recognition when he himself was a small boy. As a result, his excitement over earning “A Major Award,” a garish table lamp fashioned to look like a woman’s stockinged leg, makes him a sympathetic and likable character.

Becky Castells goes all out in choreographing the show’s many production numbers, each in a different style. The dances are excellently performed by the ensemble cast, including Alissa Horner (fabulous as Ralphie’s teacher, Miss Shields), John Manahan (as a particularly funny, but politically incorrect Chinese waiter) and standby comic villain Chris Carnicelli (in multiple roles).

A cadre of talented youngsters are featured too. Brooke N. Bradley (Schwartz) and Nico Ridino (Flick) play Ralphie and Randy’s school chums; Oliver Anderson (Scut Farkus) and Nicholas Davila-Shaw (Grover Dill) are the school bullies.

“A Christmas Story: The Musical” features a delightful cornucopia of attractive characters, a tuneful score and a story that is nostalgic without being maudlin. And it won’t put your eye out.

The show runs through Dec. 23 at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley. For tickets, call (805) 583-7900 or visit simi-arts.org.