COA adds touch to 'A Christmas Story'

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Cast members (l-r) Matthew Panek, Truman Surface, Jennifer Wilson and Eben Willson rehearse for "A Christmas Story" play on Monday.


By Cindy Beamon
Albemarle Life Editor

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Jump inside the mind of a boy who yearns for the perfect gift, add plenty of humor, and you have "A Christmas Story."

In the nostalgic play set in the 1940s, young Ralphie Parker longs for a “official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.”

His family seems clueless about his secret desire, but Ralphie hints, and then schemes to get their attention.

The classic tale comes to the stage this week in a production by College of the Albemarle's Performing Arts Center. Six shows are scheduled from Thursday to Sunday at New Community Church, 100 Kathryn Court.

Director Jeffrey Emmerich predicts that the "hilarious" script and a talented cast will please play-goers, including those familiar of the show's movie version.

The two-hour show contains new touches that will make it fresh to audiences, even after repeated views of the movie, said Emmerich.

The show is not a musical but opens with an ensemble harmonizing to some popular Christmas songs, including Winter Wonderland and a playful variation of Jingle Bells.

Sound effects for the show were also added locally, thanks to the recording talents of music director Gloria Emmerich. The play itself did not come with a sound track for guns firing, buzzers blaring, glass breaking, doors slamming, dogs barking and melodramatic music. All those sounds add to the humor.

Emmerich said the local cast, including familiar talent to COA audiences, also brings new life to the classic show. Richard Merrick, a lead man in many COA performances, narrates the story as the older Ralph reminiscing about younger years.

"His lines are just great, something that will make you giggle," said Emmerich

Emmerich said 12-year-old Matthew Panek is a perfect fit for the young Ralphie because of his natural timing for physical humor. In one scene, Ralphie fires his BB gun and then ducks after the shot ricochets off an unintended target. Emmerich said timing is important, and Panek knows when to hit the ground at the right time.

There's also a scene where Panek imagines he's defending his family from a gang of desperadoes. After some funny bullet-dodging, the desperadoes flee, and Panek wins the day with the BB gun he so much wants for Christmas.

Panek, appearing for the first time in a lead role at COA, said his favorite scene is when he beats up a school-house bully -- who just happens to be played by his big brother Joshua.

Two newcomers to the COA stage will play Ralphie's parents. True life husband-and-wife team Jenny and Eben Wilson said they were already big fans of "A Christmas Story" before they landed the roles.

Jenny said the very first movie she ever saw on the big screen was "A Christmas Story." She guessed her family, including two daughters also in the play, have watched the show about 40 times, usually around Christmas time each year.

Emmerich said the real-life connection between the Jenny and Eben creates good chemistry. Jenny said any regular life friction between the two quickly dissipates when they get on stage. She has a hard time not laughing at some of his lines.

Eben, a Coast Guard retiree, said he loves some of his character's colorful word choices -- especially cleaned-up versions of curse phrases. When the furnace conks outs, he'll mutter epithets like: "Who the hallelujah opened the dog-boned damper?"

Eben said he's a fan of screen writer Gene Shepard's ability to skirt around old FCC language restrictions for movies.

"It gets the point across well, plus it's funny listening to it," he said.

Eben said movement and many sound cues on stage is one of the biggest challenges for the 20-plus member cast.

"There's a bunch of moving parts that come together, and it does wonderfully," he said.

Eben said the play's deeper meanings -- from how to deal with bullies to how children view adults -- adds to the play's appeal.

"It captures the wonder of being a boy at Christmas time," he said.

Other cast members include: Truman Surface, LaShaun Winslow, Samuel Merrick, Shyheem McGilberry, Kailey Damron, Sam Surface, Matthew Dewees, Haley Burley, Gabrielle Wilson, Bilal Ellis, Emma Arena, Holt Glasscock, Barrett Jones, Chandler Jones, Aimee Marsh, Jennifer Merrick and Elise Wilson.

What's happening?

What: A Christmas Story

Who: Presented by The Performing Arts Center at College of the Albemarle

Where: New Community Church, 100 Kathryn Court, off Halstead Boulevard

When: Dec. 14 at 10 a.m., Dec. 15 at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Dec. 17 at 2 p.m.

Cost: $9.50 to $19.50.

Contact: 252-335-9050, 1-800-335-9050 or go to www.albemarle.edu/pac