Star Tribune: Big-budget production of ‘A Christmas Story’ goes up at Ordway

Rohan Preston, Star Tribune 12/5/14

When “A Christmas Story” opens Friday at Ordway Center in St. Paul, with little Ralphie trying his hardest to get a toy gun from Santa, it won’t be just another big production on the roster of Broadway tours.

It will be the Ordway’s very own splashy staging, complete with a 19-member orchestra, a village-sized cast and two rescue dogs. “Christmas Story” underscores the kind of work that the multi-arts venue is doing again after a three-year dry spell.

The Ordway is a producer, not just a presenter, of musical theater extravaganzas. If it hasn’t produced since 2011’s “Cinderella,” blame it on cautious leadership. The manifold costs of mounting a big show, from hiring actors and an orchestra to building sets, costumes and the like, seemed prohibitive as the economy was recovering from a recession.

But under ambitious artistic director James Rocco, a dyed-in-the-wool Broadway baby, the Ordway is making up for lost time. It is set to stage three Twin Cities-grown shows this season. Next up: “Damn Yankees” and “The Pirates of Penzance.”

“It’s exciting that we’re able to build a company — a core company of singers, actors and dancers — who can put on the great musicals of the American theater,” said Rocco, who is doubling as co-director and co-choreographer of this production.

“It’s an expensive proposition, to be sure, but it’s rewarding because the community gets to see its resources used wisely, and we get to showcase great talents and great works that speak to the nation,” Rocco said.

Tour caliber

In terms of look, production values and quality, Rocco aims to put his productions on par with those that originate in Times Square. The normal Broadway tour costs $2 million to $7 million (which includes transportation, lodging, per diems), said Rocco, who would not disclose the cost of “Christmas Story.” It seems safe to conjecture — after seeing a rehearsal — that the show is in the $1 million range.

That cost covers a large cast but even more people behind the scenes. Rocco says it has taken upward of 300 people, from the scene shop of Penumbra Theatre, which built the sets, to costumers, designers and the musicians. That investment has broader economic impact as well as something that’s not as easily measured: helping to cement the Twin Cities’ reputation as a theater mecca.

“We sent ‘Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat]’ to Japan and we’re sending ‘Christmas Story’ to Texas next year,” said Rocco. “When the shows have a life beyond the Twin Cities, it helps to offset costs and also gives the art a much longer life.”

Written by Phil Grecian, “Christmas Story” is based on the 1983 movie by writer Jean Shepherd and director Bob Clark. It follows the dreams of Ralphie (Jake Goodman), a 12-year-old whose father, the Old Man (Dieter Bierbrauer), and mother (Billie Wildrick) try to meet his needs, even as they have their challenges. Gary Briggle narrates as Shepherd.

Culling cattle call

Goodman, from upstate New York, was among 400 actors who auditioned for the show in the Twin Cities and in Manhattan.

What’s striking about the show is that the actors, even in a rehearsal without costumes or many props, have such incredible chemistry. They know their characters so well that their silences and pauses become as articulate and meaningful as their words.

“My guy has a quick temper and swears a little but he’s loving and cares deeply about his family,” said Bierbrauer, who is doing what is certainly one of the biggest roles of his career. “And he has this passion, the same passion his son shows [for the BB gun], for the leg lamp that he wins. You gotta just love that.”

The cast has deep talent in the chorus, including Austene Van, Kersten Rodau, Michael Gruber, Julianne Mundale and Tony Vierling. Most will be familiar to Twin Cities audiences, who have seen them at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, the Children’s Theatre and the Guthrie, among other venues.

But some are newcomers.

“I’m glad to be part of this group,” said Wildrick, an actor who appeared in “Scandalous” on Broadway and is based in Seattle. “To walk into a rehearsal room for the first time, and to see everyone talking, then be accepted as part of that, that’s huge. It’s not about me or Dieter or Jake. It’s about all of us.”

That Wildrick, who over her career has played ingénues, sexpots and other assorted roles, feels welcomed is part of Rocco’s plan to build a national company for his shows.

“My dream is to have a repertory company here, and every year give someone like Dieter a chance to appear in a big musical, have people fall in love with him and see what he wants to do next,” said Rocco. “We’ve got amazing talent here, and we want to put that on stage in a big way. That’s kind of what’s happening at the Ordway this season.”

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