A Christmas Story at Paper Mill: These kids bring some home cookin' for the Holidays
As a kid, celebrating Christmas was far less about the presents than it was about the food and treats, and watching my favorite holiday film on TV: A Christmas Story. Sugar cookies, peppermint sticks, gingerbread men…these were the standard fare in our house, and to this day, anytime I so much as a whiff of any of these, instant recollections of Red Ryders and frozen tongues quickly commence.
As A Christmas Story approaches the heart of its holiday run at Paper Mill this week, this middle school teacher is reminded of another holiday treat I was hardly expecting: a delightful conversation I had with some exceptionally talented, home-grown Jersey thespians.
The players were a quintet of children – all stars in this season’s much-anticipated musical stage adaptation of the cult-classic film. And in the thirty minutes or so which we shared in the theater’s upper lounge – just hours before opening night – I felt as though these youngsters and I had known each other for years. This was due not to me or the fact that all in attendance were from the Garden State, but solely the result of sharing some time with youngsters of particular precociousness.
Engaging, intelligent, enthusiastic –these kids freely shared some very personal insights into their craft and experience as young performers. In doing so, their infectious spirit and energy did more for my holiday mood than a fully-illuminated leg lamp… and this was all before I’d seen a single number from the show.
And speaking of the show: it’s fantastic. Like any great Christmas treat, A Christmas Story: The Musical is warm, sweet, and familiar…familiar in a way which stays fresh and new but is anticipated each and every new annual season. It also relies on top ingredients and expert preparation…like a roast duck at Chop Suey Palace.
The children I met two weeks ago are key ingredients of the successful recipe audiences have been flocking to “devour” for two weeks now. And wouldn’t you know it, they were grown right here in our back yard.
Here’s a quick lineup of the essential elements:
- Gabe Reis (Flick) of Tenafly
- Avery Espiritu (child swing) of East Hanover
Now that you can visualize them, I’ll let you “digest” what they taught me.
One of the things I was most impressed by was the performers’ awareness of the context of this show. Entertain? Of course. But their acknowledgment of what audiences would expect from the play-version of a film which is so much a part of so many people’s holiday tradition was noteworthy.
Colton Maurer was the first to address the topic:
“The greatest thing about this show is that every iconic moment from the film – the leg lamp, the bunny suit, “put your arms down,” the meatloaf, the potatoes…the tongue getting stuck to the pole. And iconic lines like “ I triple dog dare you” are just like the movie, but with music.”
In a similar vein, Anna McCarthy noted,
“My father doesn’t see a lot of theater unless my sister and I are in the show, but he loves the original film. I’d be joking around about lines in the movie and the musical, and my father would get the joke -- lines like ‘a major award.’ Everyone knows these lines.”
To this observer, these acknowledgments are a testament to the true professionals these youngsters are. They knew the purpose of the show and what their audience will expect – a real insight into the business side of things. And I certainly got a chuckle when young Gabe Reis, who plays Flick, provided some personal insight into one of the most iconic moments of all:
“When I get my tongue stuck to the wall…yeah, it’s really metal-y and tastes like iron. It’s gross, but it’s so much fun!”
However, it was the humility and genuine appreciation for their respective roles which revealed much more about these performers and what makes them such assets to a professional artistic community. Vincenzo Faruolo led by saying,
“We are all a loving community. We all love each other, and we all loved creating ‘You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out’ (the musical number),”
his eyes lighting up as he recalled the one musical number all of the other kids seemed to want to chime in upon. He added,
“Yeah, it’s like crazy tap, all over the place – on tables – everywhere.”
Piggybacking on that, Anna McCarthy couldn’t help herself,
“’You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out’ – we’ve been working on it for a long time, and it’s something we’re all really proud of.”
Mr. Maurer added,
“I’m not even in the number, but Miss Shilds (actress Danette Holden), she worked on this with all of the kids, and I’ve watched it all blossom. It really is a cool tap – a great dance number.”
What readers may notice in these comments is a selfless, cohesive tone – and I must say, in personally meeting these children, their face-to-face enthusiasm matched these sentiments on paper. And yet their appreciation for their fellow professionals did not stop with their counterparts on stage – at every opportunity provided, these kids had a kind word to say about the technical staff, as well.
Avery Espiritu commented,
““What I really love is the set…it’s like so amazing. It’s like so vivid. It’s like you’re actually outside – and all the way back to 1940. It’s like you just time travelled. The set people are great.”
Anna McCarthy adds,
“My favorite moment was making my quick change. We have insane changes in this show, but the dressers are amazing backstage. The kids have, like, 30 seconds to change from their school uniforms to tuxes and evening gowns for a dance scene. It’s like really insane, but the dressers are just amazing. And I just don’t know how they make these costumes!”
Selfless words, indeed, from a group of individuals who deserve much credit, themselves.
Yet we cannot forget the reality that these professionals are children. Preparing for a professional theatrical production would be a daunting task for anyone – but to make school a part of this equation, as well? The work/life balance these children must negotiate seems to be fraught with challenges; but these children have all the support in the world.
“(School’s) definitely different. We get to eat while we’re working in school, and we have to stay focused at all times. When we were back in New York and in rehearsal, we would go straight to tutoring when we weren’t working. Right now though we’re in performances, so we only really study on Thursdays. It’s just way different.”
Finally, there’s the holiday itself. Jean Shepherd, author of the original story on which the movie and the play, once said A Christmas Story is a tale of obsession; one boy’s drive for the ultimate present. So what does the children’s cast of A Christmas Story: The Musical dream of for Christmas? Surely not a Red Ryder bb gun or pink bunny pajamas.
Having originally hailed from Newark and a graduate of Seton Hall University, Rich McNanna grew up a stone’s throw from Paper Mill Playhouse in Springfield, NJ. Now a teacher in and resident of Westfield, he and his wife and son experience theater, music, and art with the same vigor as they do baseball. Paper Mill Playhouse is one of their favorite destinations.