Like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” “A Christmas Story” is among many people’s favorite movies during this time of year.
This season, 5th Avenue Theatre, at 1308 5th Ave. in Seattle, takes the classic holiday movie to the stage in “A Christmas Story: the Musical.” The production, which runs through Dec. 30, will feature the talents of two young actors from the Eastside: 11-year-old Keenan Barr of Redmond and 12-year-old Erich Schleck of Sammamish.
Keenan and Erich are among about a dozen children from the Puget Sound area (plus one from New York) who were chosen from a pool of roughly 900 children — about 400 from the northwest and the rest from New York, Los Angeles or through video submissions — to be part of the musical.
“I was really excited,” Erich said about being cast.
Erich, who is part of the children’s ensemble, said acting and performing is something he absolutely loves to do and wants to pursue it as a career. He and Keenan have participated in a number of productions at Studio East, a studio in Kirkland that creates opportunities for youth to discover and explore the performing arts. Erich has even had a leading role as the title role in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Erich said he is thrilled to be performing on 5th Avenue because it gives him such a rush. The seventh-grader from Evergreen Junior High School found out about auditions for “Christmas Story” through Theatre Puget Sound, an organization that promotes theater to the public and unify and strengthen the theater community through programs, resources and services. The audition process began in late August and early September. Erich and Keenan had multiple callbacks, but neither knew what this meant.
“It made me a little nervous because I was so much taller than all the other kids who were being called back,” Erich said.
Keenan plays Grover Dill, one of the bullies who picks on the show’s young hero, Ralphie. Keenan learned about auditions when the production first came to Seattle after premiering in Kansas City, Kan. The creators put out a call for kids to participate in a reading of the first act as they rewrote the music and made other changes. Because he was part of the readings, Keenan was more confident about his chances during the audition process.
“I knew all the music,” the sixth-grader from Horace Mann Elementary School said.
Throughout all the auditions, the young thespians worked with Kim Maguire a voice coach and owner of Kim Maguire Voice Studio in Redmond. Maguire said the process was exciting because it began with such a large group of children. She worked with Erich and Keenan on songs they handpicked for the auditions.
“At these auditions it’s crucial to show not only your voice but your personality, so the songs were worked on technically and then we added the acting,” Maguire said. “The boys were given music from the show to learn as well as being asked to be prepared to sing their initial solo. It was a highly competitive situation and we never knew who would be cut.”
When her students were cast about a month after their first auditions, Maguire said she was very proud because auditioning takes a lot of resilience and fortitude. The actor can’t take anything personally during the audition process because it is really about the director’s vision and needs for the show. Maguire said it is difficult for an adult to understand this and she admires Erich and Keenan for being able to handle all of the pressure.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
While all the auditions and callbacks were nerve wracking and stressful for the boys, the real difficult part came once they were cast. In preparing for their first show, which was Nov. 26, Erich and Keenan had rehearsals six days a week. They began with just the children in the show for a few weeks before bringing in the adult actors. They rehearsed at Downstairs at The 5th, a studio located just below the main stage at the theater, for another few weeks before moving to the stage.
With so much rehearsing, the boys have had to work at keeping up academically because of all the classes they have been missing.
“(Rehearsal is) not after school,” said Keenan’s mother Maura Barr.
Rehearsals begin at noon and run into the evening and the boys get a dinner break before their evening performance. They’re usually not finished till about 11:30 p.m. and aren’t home till after midnight. They only have Mondays free.
Because of the long hours, Erich and Keenan have been working with their schools in rearranging class schedules and adjusting homework due dates.
“Everyone (at the schools) has been phenomenal,” said Erich’s mother Beth Schleck.
Both Erich and Keenan said the full schedule has been difficult. Their free time is now spent doing homework instead of relaxing or watching TV and sleep has been hard to come by.
But they are not the only ones making sacrifices. Their parents split driving duties and they have had to rely on friends when it comes to similar duties concerning their other children. Barr said there have been things Keenan’s siblings have had to give up, such as after certain after school activities, because there is just no one to drive them.
Despite these sacrifices and not seeing their family as often — Erich admits to not seeing his brother “in forever” — the boys are really enjoying themselves.
“I’m making lots of friends with kids and with adults because they’re all really nice,” Keenan said.
It is because they are having such a good time that their parents have allowed them to participate in “Christmas Story.”
“I would do it again,” Barr said. “He’s so happy. He’s having a fantastic time.”
For showtimes, ticket information and other information about “A Christmas Story: the Musical,” visit www.5thavenue.org/show/achristmasstory1011.