With Vancouver-based theatre company Align Entertainment’s production of “A Christmas Story: the Musical” right around the corner, it was my privilege to sit down and speak with Stefanie Stanley, the lead actress of the production. She’s playing the mother of Ralphie, a precocious and strong-willed pre-teen, who wants nothing more in the world for Christmas than a Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle — his very own BB gun.
As a lover of Christmas, I could barely be more excited. As a lover of Christmas movies, I’m over the moon. As a lover of Christmas movie musicals, really there could not be a more perfect project in my mind.
Stanley and the rest of the actors are right in the middle of tech week (or as they like to call it, “hell week”). Every single cue must be practiced and rehearsed dozens upon dozens of times. The lights, the sound, the set changes — everything must be perfectly accounted for. Hundreds and hundreds of hours of work have led up to this final week of preparation, which, in less than two days, will culminate in Saturday’s opening night performance at the Michael J. Fox Theatre in Burnaby.
“It’s so iconic.” said Stanley, of the original film. “Everybody, even if they’ve only seen the movie once… they know the leg lamp, right? And they know that line: frageelay, must be Italian!”
Despite this, Stanley told me that she and the rest of the cast had held off from watching NBC’s production from last year, or focusing too much on the film itself in their preparation for their roles.
“You don’t want to go in there and copy,” she said. “That’s the tendency. You see it done, and you think that’s how it should be… But then you’re just pretending to do someone else’s job.”
Stanley, an emerging veteran of the stage, thinks that her past roles — notably as Elle’s mother in Legally Blonde: The Musical (another Align Entertainment production) — have well-prepared her for the role of Ralphie’s mother.
“I’ve been doing this a very long time, and then I took a very long break. Then I came back to it, and I’ve been doing a lot of ensemble roles, a lot of those dance numbers and supporting roles, and I’ve been really gearing up for a lead.”
“I’m prepared actor-wise, but now I’m at a place in my life where I’m prepared to play these roles that don’t necessarily appear very often. […] I’m really happy to play ‘Mother’, because it’s like real life for me right now with two little boys.”
The role of ‘Mother’ in the play is definitely an interesting one. Though the film was released in the ‘80s, both it and the musical are set in the ‘40s — a time when the roles and expectations for women, especially as members of a household, were not by any means forward-thinking. The character of ‘Mother’ in the film is forced to be the cook, the cleaner, the child-rearer, and the disciplinarian, among other stereotypical roles. I asked Stanley what her thoughts were about playing such a character, and whether or not she found it to be an empowering experience.
“I do, I do. I’ve really been working with myself… I found the work that I had to do for this role was very solitary, to be home working on my lines, working on how I wanted to be ‘Mother’. Because I don’t want her just to be a caricature, you know… I don’t want her just to be that frazzled, yelling mom. I want to find those moments that are really true about being a mom, for me, and bring them in.”
“The movie came out in the ‘80s, that was… well that was 35 years ago,” I said, having noted in my research that, despite featuring so prominently (we’re talking the female lead), Ralphie’s mother is not a named character… “In what ways has the character been reinvented or reimagined to address some of the societal change we’ve seen since that time?”
“Hmm… That’s funny…” Stanley mused on this one for a second. “Well, it has and it hasn’t. Because the movie came out in ’83, but it’s set in the 1940s, so we have to be true to that time, in a way. But nobody is one-sided, and I think that’s what I mean by a caricature. All of ‘Mother’s lines, what she says… I mean you could play her as a very happy housewife who serves her husband and her children and loves that role, and nothing else — because that’s what we think when we look back at the 1940s, we think women didn’t have a lot of opportunity outside the home… But actually things were really changing then. […] And I think there are little moments there when you can show your personality, and show that Mother has ideas. Especially when she sees that leg lamp, which she does not approve of.”
Stanley, whose personal Christmas traditions include sharing her childhood favourites Home Alone and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with her own young family, and listening to Stuart McLean’s the Vinyl Café on CBC radio, says that even though the film contains some moments that are explicit in their violence, particularly those that deal with the neighbourhood bullies, parents who are concerned need not worry about bringing their children to the musical.
“The musical is not like that. I don’t think that kids will be scared. I think that kids do know about bullies, I think it’s something that kids do experience at school, even as young as kindergarten. I mean, I’m a school teacher, I have some experience with that. So it’s not unfamiliar to them, and the more we talk about it, and the more we present things that parents can talk to their kids about — you know, like ‘oh, that was really awful, wasn’t it…’ It’s all about teachable moments, moments where adults can go ‘that was really mean what those kids said to Ralphie, what would you do in that situation?’ You know?”
“Musicals are really punctuated by energy changing from moment to moment — that’s something that’s really so beautiful about a musical.”
“Musicals are up and down like that. It really takes you on that journey… And the journey is what it’s all about.”
I thought this was a really interesting, and in fact quite a beautiful perspective. Musicals, in their blending of the intimate and the surreal, welcome us into a vignette of a world that can exist nowhere else. And it’s here, at this crossroads of the everyday and the fantastical, that something as simple as the dynamics of a young family can be explored in a way that captivates all of our imaginations simultaneously, and gives us the vicarious experience of what it feels like to be nine years old again, in a way that nothing else can.
“Do you have a personal favourite musical number that we can look forward to on opening night?” I asked Stanley.
“Brennan Cuff sings A Major Award when he hauls the lamp in and opens it up from the crate, and I think he’s absolutely brilliant. It’s a huge number, there’s a big dance break, you’ll see all the dancers come on in costume that will just blow your mind. I even get to do a little lift with him, like a tango — it’s a show stopper. And I think it’s my favourite number because I’ve been able to watch Brennan do that work throughout the months now, and it’s just so funny…”
Approaching the end of our interview, I had one last question for Stanley, but one that was perhaps more important than any other that I had asked so far. — “Who is this musical for?”
“Oh my gosh.” She laughed. “Everyone! It’s a great date-night. Live theatre, something different — and everybody has some kind of reference, connection to the movie. It’s not an obscure musical by any means. Grandparents bringing their grandchildren; nieces, nephews — the whole family coming as like a Christmas warm-up… You know? It’s just a really lovely night or afternoon out. There are fantastic sets, and costumes. There are kids that tap dance in the show! For 25 bucks on a Thursday night, you can’t beat that.”
Now, the information you need to know:
Align entertainment presents A Christmas Story: The Musical
When: Nov. 2nd to 17th — previews on the 2nd, opening night on Saturday the 3rd at 8:00 PM
Where: Michael J. Fox Theatre, 7373 MacPherson Ave., Burnaby