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4Wall NY Teams with Big League Productions, Inc. for A Christmas Story, The Musical Tour

By Drew Quinones
Jan 20, 2017, updated Feb 13, 2017
 4Wall NY Teams with Big League Productions, Inc. for A Christmas Story, The Musical Tour

PLSN's Randi Minetor recently covered 'A Christmas Story, The Musical', a national tour based on the perennial holiday movie favorite. 4Wall New York played a key role as lighting provider for this year's tour.  Check out the full story reprinted from PLSN below.

Taking A Christmas Story on Tour

It began as the reminiscences of an old storyteller, but it grew to become one of our best-loved tales of the yuletide season — and now it's a singing, dancing celebration of the youthful anticipation of Christmas morning. A Christmas Story, the live stage show adapted from the 1983 movie, takes a tale of 1940s Midwestern America and turns it into an extravagant fantasy that spins from the mind of an eleven-year-old boy.

The original film is packed with wild imaginings as Ralphie Parker dreams of owning "an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time." Gun in hand, he see himself as a cowboy rescuing his teacher from a villainous enemy, as a model student writing a classroom essay that moves his elders to tears, and — much to his own chagrin — as the woefully underappreciated child whom everyone assures that if he receives his cherished gun, "You'll shoot your eye out."

The tale of Ralphie's struggle through a daunting Christmas season has become a key part of the American holiday tradition. This led Big League Productions, Inc., in association with Deborah Denenberg, to mount A Christmas Story's Broadway musical version in 2014 and take it on the road, bringing audiences a sort of alternate-universe way to experience the fun. The production now emerges annually for a limited run in November and December and has just completed its third successful season with packed houses in upstate New York, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Baltimore, among other cities.

The Broadway production, with scenic design by Walt Spangler and lighting design by Howell Binkley, positioned the two-story Parker home in the midst of a landscape of high snowdrifts. The Big League production maintained the house's open floor plan, but tour scenic designer Michael Carnahan replaced the drifts with the curved walls of a snow globe, providing two distinct advantages: a surface for projections of whirling snow and prismatic individual flakes and an open cyclorama to drench with color.

This was good news for Charlie Morrison, the lighting designer tasked with converting the Broadway design for the tour. "Howell did provide me access to his original design materials, which were great for an initial frame of reference, and just to see what he did with the New York City physical production," said Morrison. "Howell could not have been more helpful or gracious. But we have a completely different set, different footprint, different light plot, different moving lights, different console … all of which basically led me to essentially start from scratch."

Morrison's credits include many national and international tours of top Broadway productions, so he was up to the challenge presented by A Christmas Story's many shifts in point-of-view. From Jean Shepherd's down-home style (ably portrayed by Chris Carsten) to Ralphie's wild flights of fancy, Morrison, assisted by associate lighting designer Andrew Scharwath, had plenty of opportunities to flex some creative muscle.

"I came into the project with this overall gut feeling that it was a relatively straightforward show," he said. "But as you dig into it, it's really not simple at all. There are a lot of different locations, and there's a ton of narration, which involves a lot of back and forth cueing between the narrator and the various scenes. On top of that, there are a bunch of complicated fantasy sequences and production numbers."

In the end, there was nothing straightforward about it, he said. "This seemingly simple show ended up having about 850 cues in it."

Streamlined, One-Stop Rental

"Tours are tricky in that they obviously have to be packaged to move as efficiently as possible, while also delivering on everything the show needs," said Morrison. "My general approach to any tour is to rely as heavily as I can on the automated lights, and to try and reduce the quantity of conventional lights as much as possible. It's a balancing act."

One of the biggest differences between a tour and a stationary production, he noted, is the front of house gear. "On a tour, you have to limit yourself to a pretty sparse front of house package…it takes a lot of time to hang and focus front-of-house, and at certain venues, you end up having to use the in-house front-of-house gear."

Most tours allow a lighting designer to specify generic area light, he said. "But on A Christmas Story, in addition to everything else we have to light in the show, we have this large two-story house unit which in a lot of ways needs to be lit like a unit set, and about 50 percent of the show takes place in it." This requires the show to travel with its own stationary lighting package that focuses specifically on the house unit.

Production electrician Brendan Quigley and his associates, Nathan Winner and Michael Bert, worked at the first venue on the tour to hang, focus and tech the lighting package provided by 4Wall Entertainment. A 115-unit array of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals in five sizes led off the conventional lighting, along with 26 Source Four PARs.

"Because of the wide range of looks the show needs, we needed a very versatile lighting package, capable of being very flexible and capable of delivering a lot of bold, vivid color when needed," said Morrison. "The workhorses of the design are a combination of Martin MAC Vipers, MAC Viper Performances, Martin MAC Quantum Wash and Chroma-Q ColorForce 72s to deliver that. Al Ridella at 4Wall NY provided us with a fantastic set of gear for the show, and we put it to good use."

Ridella, who is 4Wall's vice president of national business development, noted that the list of fixtures was only the beginning of the order. "We added in all the cable, truss, motors and equipment to support it," he said, including two ETC 96 x 2kw dimmer racks, scrollers, rigging, side booms, dance towers, vertical and horizontal fall protection and an assortment of hazers and foggers.

Lighting controls include an ETC Gio 4000 console for performances and an ETC Ion 2000 for backup and to test the moving lights off-line. The production travels with its own electricians: Steve Ramondo heads the crew, with Sean Hamilton and Kathryn Ludwig assisting.

"The prep went great," said Ridella, "The crew was good — it was a pleasure to work with them. We had discussions, and when we had to make substitutions, we made them. It was very smooth."

A show like this one is all in a day's work for 4Wall, which also supplied the lighting package for Big League's new production of 42nd Street — a big moving light show, Ridella noted. "That one will be out for 23 weeks," he said. "We're starting to do more and more with Big League."

Inside, Outside — and Outside Of Reality

Morrison's design creates a comfortable realism inside the Parker home, with a warm palette that "helps give a feeling of nostalgia and reminiscence," he explained. "Those scenes are lit much like a play on a box set." The carefully dressed scene provides a sense of middle-class life in Indiana in December 1940.

The surprises start when the narrative veers into the unexpected. "Where we really get a chance to have fun, in terms of bold color and heavy cueing, is during the various fantasy sequences," said Morrison. "Most of these have minimal scenery, so visually, the lighting really drives those."

Morrison worked to give each of these its own color palette, "really just as a point of departure," he said.

For example, in the spectacular western-themed musical number "Ralphie to the Rescue," in which the boy imagines himself as the good guy in a white cowboy costume covered in fur, the lighting helps set the mood for the good guys versus the bad guys. When the good guys dominate the scene, the sky behind them turns bright blue; when the bad guys arrive, the sky turns a menacing red. "We get to use a lot of fun reds, ambers and yellows throughout," said Morrison. "It's also a long production sequence, with a few distinct sections to it. The kids in the show really shine in it."

Morrison's other favorite features Ralphie's father celebrating his "Major Award," the famous leg lamp that has become the tale's most recognized icon. The number involves a Rockettes-like formation in which every dancer has a life-sized leg prop that's identical to the lamp — and these legs figures prominently in the kick line. "We have some lighting tricks in that one," he said, "including a full-stage LED leg lamp drop, which we do a lot of chases and color changes with."

The comic absurdity is contagious, and it's clear that the designers had as much fun as the audiences. Add to this a dozen tap-dancing children, two hound dogs stealing the Christmas turkey and a furnace that smokes mightily on cue, and you have the kind of holiday tale that will pack theatres for years to come.

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