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Foothills' `Christmas Story' has too much from the adults.

Byline: Paul Kolas

COLUMN: THEATER REVIEW

WORCESTER - Every work is subject to various interpretations, as it is evaluated critically with diverse opinion. That being said, it's time to be a Grinch and put a sizable lump of coal in Foothills Theatre's Christmas stocking for their shrill and overplayed production of "A Christmas Story" on Sunday afternoon. Director Jeremy Johnson apparently thinks the only way to tell Ralphie Parker's boyhood story is to have the two adult male leads act BIG.

There are ways to tell a story from a child's point of view without resorting to overly distorted caricature. "E.T." anyone? How about "To Kill a Mockingbird"? Beyond a certain point, caricature ceases to be funny and becomes merely annoying. Bill Mootos is just too young to play The Old Man. Not only that, he looks more like Don Draper, the dark and handsome GQ advertising executive on AMC's marvelous "Mad Men," than a grind-it-out husband and father living in 1940s Indiana. The credibility factor is further decreased by any semblance of nuance in his performance. Everything he reacts to is closer to hysteria than mere excess emotion: Ralphie's use of the "F-bomb" or the arrival of the female leg lamp, for example. He sounds more like a politician on the campaign trail than a Midwestern dad, and he dresses like one too.

But he's positively minimalist when measured alongside the incessantly bombastic oration - oops - narration of Shelley Bolman as the Older Ralph, who either thinks the audience needs an extra nudge to "get it" or he's being extremely thoughtful to the folks in the back row who may have trouble hearing him. Who knows? Maybe people talked that way back in 1940s Indiana.

Whatever the reason for his orotund interpretation, it's too bad he, or Johnson, or both, have eliminated any feeling of conversational intimacy with the character. It's a showy, irritating piece of grandstanding artifice without any depth or authenticity.

Thank goodness for the human-sized portrait of Mother by Marianna Bassham. She's wonderful.

Essaying the part with quiet affection, bemusement and throwaway gestures, she reacts to crises, such as the smoking heater in the Parker's basement, or Ralphie's potty mouth, with far more veracity. She seems to have a much better grasp of what Ralphie's story is all about and how to tell it. Speaking of Ralphie, Robby Healy is physically ideal for the part, and he projects enough dreamy innocence - and charming mischief in his clever attempts to get his Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas - to upstage his grownup version. Katherine Copeland has an awkwardly poignant scene or two with Ralphie as Esther Jane, the girl with a crush on him. All the young actors are reasonably capable, including Mickey White (Ralphie's best friend, Flick), Steven Christy (his other best friend, Schwartz), Alexis Lombardozzi (Helen, the class "brain"), Alex Dorian (big bad Scut Farkas), and last but not least, Nicholas Strafer as Ralphie's little brother Randy.

The remaining grownup in the cast, Lisa Tucker as Miss Shields, nicely captures that middle ground between what we remember our elementary school teachers as being and probably what they were really like.

Two aspects that can't be faulted are Erik D. Diaz's burnished and busy scenic design and Molly Trainer's period costumes.

Diaz at least gives you a visual sense of what it might have been like to live in the Parker's world 60 years ago, and Ralphie really looks cool in those cowboy duds. Unfortunately, this "A Christmas Story" never really makes you FEEL that world. It feels more like Indiana as imagined by Broadway. Mendacious.

`A Christmas Story'

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Adapted by Philip Grecian from the writings of Jean Shepherd, directed by Jeremy Johnson. Presented by Foothills Theatre Company, 100 Front St., Worcester. Performances at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 23. All tickets are $30. Students are $19, and groups of 20 or more save $10 per ticket. Call (508) 754-4018 for reservations or purchase tickets online at www.foothillstheatre.com. With Shelley Bolman, Robby Healy, Bill Mootos, Marianna Bassham, Lisa Tucker, Nicholas Strafer, Mickey White, Steven Christy, Katherine Copeland, Alexis Lombardozzi and Alex Dorian.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: A scene from "A Christmas Story" at Foothills Theatre. From left to right, Nick Strafer, Marianna Bassham, Robby Healy and Bill Mootos.
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Title Annotation:ENTERTAINMENT
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 4, 2007
Words:740
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