Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Christmas Westside Story Wows Falcon Audiences

Joseph Keane as Flick (left) and company of A Christmas
Westside Story. Photos by Chelsea Sutton

It was a stroke of genius on the part of Matt Walker and his band of Troubies the day they decided to combine A Christmas Story, one of the funniest holiday movies to come out of the ‘80s, and West Side Story, one of the best musicals ever written, into a brand new holiday favorite called A Christmas Westside Story.

Relating the childhood adventures of 9-year old Ralphie (Matt Walker) via the ground-breaking songs and explosive choreography of the Jets and Sharks is rich ground for the Troubies’ unique style of comedy, and it starts from the very beginning with the playground parallel of West Side Story’s Prologue, complete with finger snaps and territorial dance moves. Choreographer Molly Alvarez pays serious tribute to Jerome Robbins in this dance heavy musical, featuring dancers that could easily appear in a production of the Bernstein/Sondheim classic on any legit stage. And that makes all the difference.

It’s the 1940’s, and Ralphie is desperate for a BB gun for Christmas. In a stroke of supremely bad timing he blurts out his wish for the Red Ryder 200 Shot Range Model Air Rifle only to have his mom (Leah Sprecher) respond with the classic mother BB gun block, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Instantly they turn Anita and Maria’s “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” into the hysterical duet “A Toy Like That.” Losing half her wig on opening night during the dance sequence only made the number funnier as we watched Sprecher dance over and recover it from the floor, stir it into her bowl, decide that didn’t work well enough, and then finally throw it into the sink.

This is the kind of improv for which the Troubies are famous, and loyal audience members secretly wait for things to go awry because the ad-libs that result are the stuff Troubie dreams are made on, for these jacks of all trade and masters of pun know how to use all missteps to their best advantage.

No penalty flags were thrown on opening night, though Walker’s “groaner-meter” made several appearances to gauge the success of some of the more controversial topical references. Nothing is sacred here - be it latecomers, Michelle Bachman, or Penn State; no subject gets by without probing it for a laugh. And if Walker doesn’t attack it first, you can be sure Rick Batalla (as Ralphie's dad) will, king of improvisation that he is. Give him an inch and he’ll take a comedic mile, but who cares when the result works. All he needs is a pair of Eugene Levy eyebrows, no coat rack for his coat, imaginary stairs down to the basement and a Leg Lamp (played by Monica Schneider) he can call his own.

So many song classics get re-imagined in the show and musical lovers will get a kick out of all the twists. The Jet Song changes “When You’re a Jet” to a “When You’re a Kid” riff, the “Gym Mambo” is transformed into a terrific Christmas shopper sequence ending in a parody of Tony and Maria’s first meeting as Ralphie spies the object of his youthful desire in a store window. Miraculously, his Red Ryder BB gun is brought to life as the sexy Red (Katherine Malak pictured below). Together they sing the new and improved love ballad, “One Hand, One Heart” which is now “Two Hands, One Gun.”


There’s a new version of “Tonight” and “Maria” and even a brilliant “I Feel Pretty,” in which the Leg Lamp (Schneider pictured above), won by Ralphie’s dad, comes to life for a sexy dream specialty. “America” is reinvented by a chorus of ‘40s short-haired housewives singing and clapping, “La, la, la, la, la, la B-B-gun…” And before Flick (Joseph Keane) follows through on the dreaded triple dog dare Schwartz (Robert Petrarca) makes, the ensemble performs a show stopping Act I finale to “Cool.” Yes, we go into intermission with Flick’s tongue stuck to the pole!

Beth Kennedy and Matt Walker

Walker’s wide-eye narration of the musical follows the premise set up in A Christmas Story and whether he’s stuck in the awful pink bunny suit from Aunt Clara, clawing his way up the slide for a second chance to tell Santa his Christmas wish, or trying not to get his eye shot out (epic fail), you believe he is a 9-year old boy. It’s an engaging, earnest, terrifically funny performance.

Add Beth Kennedy as his younger brother Randy and just watch the laughs multiply. Recreating scenes like the mashed potato piggy scene (with the addition of a couple of snot carrots), Randy crying underneath the sink because he thinks “daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie,” taking all the presents under the tree -“that’s mine, and that's mine, and that's mine” - or getting so overly bundled up in his winter snowsuit that he can’t put his arms down, run the gamut from goofy to gross.

The collaborative effort of the designers works beautifully too. Mike Jespersen’s chain link fences and rolling set pieces create a playing area that provides plenty of room for the impressive dance numbers, which are lit to perfection by lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick. Naomi Yoshida recreates many of the best visual jokes from A Christmas Story in her costume design. Even musical director/drummer Eric Heinly and his onstage band are dressed as tough kids on the playground while sounding terrific on some of the most difficult songs in the musical theatre catalogue.

Other theatrical venues around town often have sound difficulties but here at the Falcon they always seem to get it right. Special mention goes to Robert Arturo Ramirez who is responsible for the sound design on this production and does an outstanding job.

There's a reason why the Troubies have built such a loyal fan base here in L.A. and why they continue to win awards year after year.  This latest holiday extravaganza is a perfect introduction for newcomers to the Troubie theatrical experience. Get your tickets now before they sell out! 

A Christmas Westside Story runs through January 15 at the Falcon Theatre in Toluca Lake. Click Here for tickets and more information.

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