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Ralphie and the BB Grail 

Christmas and cowboys in Charlotte

Back in October, Children's Theatre of Charlotte opened their new ImaginOn facility with an unprecedented Center City splash. Well, if The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a warning to fasten your seatbelts and grab firm hold of your expectations, their current production, A Christmas Story, politely serves notice that it's safe to walk around the cabin.

We've returned from enchanted Narnia, traveling backwards in time to raconteur Jean Shepherd's boyhood home in Indiana. Winters there aren't quite as magical and crystalline as Ralphie Parker moons over the prospect of acquiring a genuine Red Ryder 200-Shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas.

Nor are there plentiful opportunities for technical dazzle as Ralphie lobbies his parents, his schoolteacher, and the local department store Santa for his BB grail. While we're not constantly bombarded with the wonders of new McColl Family Theatre, we do go beyond the capabilities of McGlohon Theatre and the palace-turned-rubble on Morehead Street.

When Ralphie's dad dreams of holiday dinners transcending the Parkers' nightly meatloaf and red cabbage, a brace of turkeys descends from the flyloft. As we journey to the department store, a snowy mountain rolls in from the wings as Ralphie and his incontinent younger brother, Randy, await their turns at the summit in Santa's lap. Child after child slides down from Santa's throne after imparting his or her confidence to the Yuletide demigod.

Otherwise, Sandra Gray's savory set design operates with discreet efficiency, standing rock solid in front of a wintry, stage-filling backdrop. A similarly large scrim drops down right behind the proscenium when Ralphie and his pals essay the treacherous outdoor trek to school, hoping to avoid the predatory bullying of the lupine Scut Farkas and his midget flunky, Grover Dill.

Overall, quiet restraint prevails from CT's mighty technical juggernaut. That often leaves the stage in the capable hands of narrator Mark Sutton as the mature Ralph, fully taking ownership of the foibles of Ralphie's boyhood -- with just the right mixture of earnestness, detachment, and irony.

Still, Phil Grecian's adaptation of Sheperd's screenplay has a few dry patches during its 95 minutes that Sutton and his cast mates must charm us through. Maybe that's for the best. Newcomers to Children's Theatre productions who were awestruck by the ImaginOn gizmos at work in The Lion can now turn their attention to the company's performance excellence. Under Nicia Carlaís richly textured direction, every word from the schoolkids comes across clearly and confidently -- every delectable comedic nuance emerges unforced.

Adults, to varying degrees, are cartoonish within this grungy memoir. Steven Ivey is right at home with the eccentricities of Ralphie's bumbling, good-hearted dad -- and with his enduring childishness. Laurie Riffe does a starchy stint as Mom, warming up to our hero when he's most embattled, and Jill Bloede bustles officiously as the schoolmarm, fixing a gimlet eye on her students as needed.

It is an aching trial to be a kid, with epic sufferings no less keen for their triviality. Even if the role isn't Shakespeare, Will Davis gets to the heart of young Ralphie beautifully, and Lee Landess is on-key with all little brother Randy's annoying flavor notes. Granting a blond Schwartz as whimsical colorblind casting, I found the rest of the youthful cast ideal -- with a little scene-stealer on the loose named Michael Rasile as the gutless Grover.

For the first time since their hilarious Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage captured CL's Show of the Year honors in 2003, Actor's Theatre is revisiting the Wild Wild West. With director Craig Spradley along with Polly Adkins and Pam Hunt-Spradley still in cahoots on the comedy, Charlotte's topgun theater troupe proves they still know the territory in Johnny Guitar.

In some respects, the musical numbers upstage the turgid plot. Every time the name of our hero is uttered on the badlands of New Mexico, ace guitarist Troy Conn strums a portentous chord from the bandstand overlooking the action.

More hilarious still are the repeated appearances of a backup quartet when our principals break into song. They're fringed blue-shirted dudes, or mariachi hombres, or even unscary skeletons in their various incarnations -- and one or two of them die or drop out for awhile, but no matter. All must multitask.

Topmost among the Western clichés is Johnny himself, the reformed gunslinger with the twitching trigger finger, the true loving heart, and the unerring aim. Why did he leave the slatternly saloon owner, Vienna, and why did she let him go? Upon Johnny's return, it's evident that their every breath is filled with limitless devotion and gravity.

Of course, a deep river of evil intent must be bridged before Johnny and Vienna can find bliss. That's where the swarthy, seething Emma comes in, eternally clad in funereal black. A couple of interesting wrinkles keep the plot from growing too hackneyed. It isn't Johnny that Emma lusts for but the bank-robbing Dancin' Kid -- who's laudably less insane over Vienna. And it's the gals who duke it out in the denouement, not the cowboys.

I could write a totally happy ending to this review if the vocals were as strong and inspired as the acting. Alas, Jerry Colbert's pipes take awhile longer to warm up these days as Johnny, and he reaches the highest altitudes of his vocal range with more strain than in years past. But these niggling reservations melt away when Colbert -- backed by his trusty quartet compadres -- launches into a doo-wop rendition of "Tell Me a Lie" that devolves into a shameless Elvis send-up.

Hunt-Spradley was somewhat shakier as Vienna in the early going on opening night and, hopefully, will continue at the confidence level she reached with "Welcome Home," the piano bar weeper that closes Act 1. She'll never be the belter that the music calls for, but that's showbiz. Or matrimony.

On the other hand, I long for more vocals from Polly Adkins as Emma, out-villaining McCambridge at every turn, and we're fortunate to have the platinum voice of Joseph Klosek as The Kid, particularly when somebody has to follow Colbert's showstopping gyrations.

All quartet members aren't equal, though they ham and harmonize to perfection. Standouts are Stan Peal and Jeremy DeCarlos.

To sum up: Yee-haw!

Spoofing the 1954 film that triangulated around the passions and jealousies of Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, and Mercedes McCambridge, Johnny Guitar sports a script by Nicholas van Hoogstraten that's a-hankerin' to ridicule every Western convention in its path. Music by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins -- with lyrics by Higgins -- is in an equally frolicsome vein.

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