We all already know what Ralphie wants for Christmas. The American consciousness has been imprinted with holiday visions of sexy leg lamps, oversize pink bunny suits and, of course, the “official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and this thing which tells time built right into the stock” since Jean Shepherd’s classic 1940s-era family flick hit theaters in 1983 (and has aired in all-day TV marathons on TNT ever since).
Portland Center Stage has set itself a big challenge in unwrapping this charming Christmas present, which focuses on a 9-year-old Ralphie Parker and his oddball Indiana family’s December trials and triumphs, for the live stage. Unfortunately, Philip Grecian’s stolid adaptation manages to suck much of the nostalgic holiday cheer out of this story of BB gun mania. The biggest problem? There’s two Ralphies. While the film overlays its wry adult narration on kid Ralphie’s cherubic face, PCS’s version forces kid actor Michael Cline to share the stage with his grown-up alter ego Darius Pierce, the latter often blandly pontificating over the minutiae of kid life (Little Orphan Annie decoder rings, schoolyard bullies with yellow eyes) while the former ineffectually mimes the action. That makes for a crowded stage, which is dressed in a spot-on re-creation of the film’s shabby Midwestern living room, kitchen, and smoke-choked stairway down to the blasted furnace. To make it worse, this version crams in at least another 20 minutes of superfluous dialogue plucked from Shepherd’s book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, leading to a 2 1/2-hour stage-show slog that feels like an extended DVD edition of the film—complete with a pointless love interest for Ralphie.
Despite the issues, the cast performs with screwball charm. Ebbe Roe Smith shines as Ralphie’s turkey-obsessed, furnace-fighting “Old Man,” blasting off into fantastic fits of garbled obscenity and misplaced rage when the occasion calls for it. Fourth-grader Harrison Goyette nails kid brother Randy, right down to the kitchen-table piggy snorts and snowsuit waddle, lending much-needed giggles to the show.
All in all, A Christmas Story is not a bad show; the problem is simply that a straight adaptation doesn’t add anything to the original. I couldn’t help hoping that at some point Ralphie’s exhausted mom would break into song about her love of cooking meatloaf and red cabbage or that evil Scut Farkus would get his own dance number. Poking fun at a cult movie worked for the Tony-nominated adaptation of Xanadu. Maybe it’s time somebody gave Ralphie and his blue-steel beauty a Christmas song of their own.
SEE IT: Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturday-Sunday. No show Dec. 25. Closes Dec. 26. $33-$63, $18 youth.