Elkader Opera House musical ‘A Christmas Story’ will showcase a young cast

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“It’s a major award!” In the upcoming Elkader Opera House production of “A Christmas Story,” the Parker family will be played by Cameron Berges, Gavin West, Meghan Birdnow and Erin Camp.

The scene depicts the iconic triple dog dare in the schoolyard, with Jaren Evans and Gavin West. “A Christmas Story” will take the opera house stage Dec. 2-4 and 9-11.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


The upcoming Elkader Opera House musical, “A Christmas Story,” isn’t just your typical musical, but a “really big Christmas musical” and a “big undertaking,” in the words of experienced show director Cheri Moser. 


The 40-show veteran and nine-time show director always wanted to produce this specific production. It’s been on her “dream list” for several years, as Moser and the Opera House Players (OHP) patiently waited for the right time to bring out a larger-scale holiday show. On the heels of the recently staged and successful Matilda, the group felt the time was right. 


At a November 2021 OHP meeting, Moser officially pitched the show and was met with a resounding and emphatic “yes.” The enthusiasm stemmed from the fact this is a “hilarious and beautiful” show, which Moser said is “just as funny as the movie and has even more heart.” 


The time also felt right because of the strong group of actors to pull from. In fact, about 60 people showed up to audition for a role in the Christmas classic, from which 25 were selected to the cast. They were handpicked by Moser, with the help from show choreographer Erin Degner, stage manager Kay Moser and longtime OHP member Tom Chandler. 


The four burned the midnight oil, talking through different scenario and cast lineups, trying to create the best mix of talent while also considering their ability to make the time commitment and how well they will take direction. In Moser’s words, it was about who would “mesh on stage.” 


This process led to casting 12-year-old Gavin West in the lead role of Ralphie. According to Moser, West “stuck out pretty quickly,” and it was apparent, at least to Moser, that he would be the lead the second he stepped offstage. 


“He has incredible energy and an amazing voice,” Moser said. 


For West, who also played the role of Bruce in last year’s Matilda, the lead role was something he auditioned for, though he admitted it’s been more stressful this time around. 


“The lead definitely takes more time and practice. It’s more stressful to be the lead, as everyone is counting on you and you don’t want to let them down. When I was in Matilda, I still felt my role was important, but when you are the lead, all eyes are on you,” West said. 


However, the casting process led to something else. Out of the 25 cast members, eight are either making their stage debut or have never participated in such a large-scale production. That’s paired with the fact this cast includes numerous young actors. 


This creates a challenge to accompany the other challenges that already exist for such a musical, like the choreography, additional musical rehearsals, hitting the right song harmonies, remembering lines, keeping in character and quick costume and set changes. Throw in the shortened rehearsal schedule compared to previous years, and it could be potentially worrisome for an inexperienced director, but not for Moser. 


The cast has demonstrated an unsurpassed level of commitment to putting the time in to “make it al work.” “Our motto for this show has been, ‘It’s not a problem until it’s a problem.’ Basically, I believe anything is possible. We just have to figure out the right way to make it all work,” Moser said.


When it comes to the youthful cast, Moser actually finds it to be a positive. She’s not concerned with stage fright or the jitters, which are usually overpowered by “excited energy” anyway, according to Moser. 


“This particular group has a lot of energy. But in theatre...that’s a good thing. And just wait until you hear them sing...it’s pretty awesome. The kids songs are some of my favorites,” Moser said. 


The young cast and the number of people auditioning wouldn’t be possible if not for the atmosphere and environment cultivated by OHP, which by all accounts is very welcoming, supportive and generous. 


As Moser explained, “We are a family. We are a team. We don’t judge. In theatre, you get to be ridiculous…You have to be comfortable enough to step outside yourself, knowing others won’t judge you. And you have to trust that the rest of the cast is going to back you up, support you and be crazy right along with you…We don’t want anyone to feel like they don’t belong.”


Joining this family atmosphere is Megan Pierschbacher, a high school student from Ed-Co, making her first OHP appearance as part of the ensemble. But her love of acting goes all the way back to when she was a child making up shows in her grandma’s garage and making the family watch. Since then, she’s appeared in countless shows at Ed-Co and found her way to OHP through friends and the encouragement of her mother. Being in the ensemble feels like home for Pierschbacher, who described it as “the best of all the worlds.” 


“I am not really stuck as one character. In one scene I am this and in the next I am that. I think that it is really exciting getting that variety. I love getting to be a part of the ensemble,” Pierschbacher added. 


Pierschbacher auditioned for another more personal reason. While “A Christmas Story” might be just a movie to some, it holds a special place in Pierschbacher’s heart because it was her dad’s “all time favorite Christmas movie.” Sadly, Pierschbacher’s dad passed away in early May, just a few weeks before auditions, throwing the decision into doubt. Ultimately, Pierschbacher decided to try for her dad, and was happy to get the part.


“I knew I was making my dad proud. Though knowing that he will not be able to see it has made it hard sometimes, I am very glad I decided to audition,” she said. “There are some lines in the show that are touchy to me because of this but, again, the people there have been amazing and are always making sure I am alright.” 


Another young cast member is 13-year-old Macy McGeough, who plays Schwartz, one of Ralphie’s best friends. She has attended shows and theater camps since the “Best Christmas Pageant Ever” at the Elkader Opera House when she was eight. McGeough auditioned for the role because of her favorite scene in the movie—the one where Flick is dared to stick his tongue to the flagpole. The scene requires persistence, something McGeough embodies. 


“I think I am good at this because I think, if I was really Schwartz, I would be curious to see if it really worked, and keep daring him. I use that thought during this scene,” McGeough explained. 


The role also required McGeough to learn how to tap dance, which she said was “super fun, but also very challenging.” Having never taken a dance class before, this meant a lot of practice after school and at home, but she has dedicated herself to the process because she “wants the dance to be perfect.” 


Then there is Collin Holdsworth, making his stage debut as bully Scut Farkus. He was encouraged by his mother, who also auditioned for the show, and because it looked like fun. The small role is something Holdsworth was looking for, but it comes with a bit of acting as well. Being the bully doesn’t bother Holdsworth. 


“I don’t mind the role at all, and think it is a perfect role that I can play very well for the show,” Holdsworth said. 


While rehearsal sometimes doesn’t run as smoothly as anticipated, Holdsworth is glowing in his praise for the production. 


“It’s has been going mostly smooth with the acting and dances…Acting takes a little bit of practice and the dances for me may not be as smooth when we start to know them, but I catch on fast after a few practices, which are solid now,” Holdsworth said. 


The musical, he stressed, is going to be just great. 


“There are going to be a lot of funny and fun-to-watch moments for the people that come and see it,” he said.


Moser has similar expectations, which she said are “just as high” as they are for every show. When she looks at the cast and production, she is simply in awe at what they’ve been able to accomplish, while noting the performances of older cast members, including Andrew Lange, who plays the narrator Jean Shepherd and has been “absolutely phenomenal.”  


Then there is Cameron Berges, who plays Ralphie’s dad, and is “absolutely hilarious.” Not to be forgotten is Meghan Birdnow, playing Ralphie’s mother. According to Moser, Birdnow “is going to make people cry with her beautiful voice and the heart she’s putting into her role.”


“I cannot explain how proud I am of where we are at compared to where we started,” Moser said. 


At the heart of it all is the opera house itself, which brings people together and creates everlasting bonds and memories, which Moser is always overjoyed to share.   


“The Elkader Opera House has brought me so much joy and so many memories. I’m so happy to see others experiencing the same,” Moser said. “I recently had one of our new young actors tell me, ‘The opera house is my favorite place.’ For someone who loves our theatre as much as I do, that’s a powerful statement.” 


Share that experience by attending “A Christmas Story.” But get your tickets as soon as possible, as Moser expects a packed house. Performances are scheduled for Dec. 2, 3, 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 4 and 11 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available online at operahouse.booktix.com.

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