FARGO — When it was released in mid-November 1983, legendary film critic Roger Ebert praised “A Christmas Story,” but predicted it wouldn’t find much of an audience as holiday movies weren’t popular at the time.
The nostalgic comedy was only a modest success, and in many markets, it was out of theaters by year’s end.
A couple of years later, however, people tuned into the small screen to see the movie so many overlooked on the big screen — and a decade after it’s initial release, “A Christmas Story” had become a holiday favorite.
“It’s been part of my holiday tradition since the 1980s,” says Lori Koenig, who directs Fargo Moorhead Community Theatre’s stage version of “A Christmas Story: The Musical.”
Like so many, Koenig fell for what has become iconic about the movie: young Ralphie’s obsession with getting an "official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle," despite the warnings from others that he’ll shoot his eye out; the leg lamp; Ralphie’s bunny outfit; and even the pack of dogs that devours the family’s Christmas turkey — all of which are in the stage version.
Koenig says with a cast mostly made up of actors under the age of 45, and many under the age of 15, the tale of Ralphie Parker and his family’s 1940s Christmas has always been a TV tradition, particularly with TBS’ regular rotation, including a 24-hour cycle of it.
The problem with that for some is that while they may have switched to it, they may have never sat all the way through it.
“Until a few years ago, I had never seen the whole film, beginning to end. Of course I knew all of the pieces,” says Keith Schweigert, who narrates the show as adult Ralphie, voiced by the story’s author, Jean Shepard, in the movie.
Seth LaMont plays young Ralphie in the FMCT version. He remembers first seeing it a few years ago at his grandmother’s house.
“I thought it was the weirdest movie ever, and I fell in love with it at the same time,” says the 11-year-old.
LaMont says Ralphie is relatable, even if the story is set about 75 years ago.
“He knows what he wants, and he’ll do anything for it,” he says.
So has the young actor ever wanted anything as badly as Ralphie's "Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle"? Yes, he says. This year, it’s a Nintendo Switch.
In the meantime, he’s happy to be in the show and particularly likes the opening number, “It All Comes Down to Christmas,” and Ralphie’s solo, “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun”.
Koenig says the musical remains faithful to the screen version, and says the addition of songs and dance numbers helps move the production along, whereas a film could just jump to the next scene.
“That makes it seamless, working in and out of numbers,” she says.
While she hasn’t watched many of the live musicals done on TV recently, like “Grease” and “The Sound of Music,” Koenig liked the FOX version of “A Christmas Story: Live” last year, though the public blasted it.
She particularly liked turning Ralphie’s teacher into “a tap-dancing goddess” and the final number, “A Christmas Story.”
"It borders on sentimental, but not quite that sappy," she says.
“There’s no bad way to do ‘A Christmas Story,’” says ensemble member Craig Roath.
If you go
What: “A Christmas Story: The Musical”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, and Saturday, Dec. 8, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9, with similar times Dec. 13-16 and Dec. 20-22
Where: The Stage at Island Park, 333 Fourth St. S., Fargo
Info: Tickets from $15 to $25; http://www.fmct.org or 701-235-1901