Dallas — We’re making a list, and checking it twice—a rundown of each holiday classic, on TV and film, we need to watch before the season feels complete. And high on the page is the much-loved, laugh-a-minute 1983 movie A Christmas Story—whose creator, mid-century radio personality Jean Shepherd, was probably as surprised as anyone to find his quirky story of a boy and a BB gun in 1940s Indiana become a must-see holiday tradition.
And then came A Christmas Story, The Musical—what could be better?
“We try to honor and expand on every major moment in the movie,” says actor Paul Nobrega, coming to Dallas with Big League Productions’ national tour of the show, which runs Dec. 12-16 at the Winspear Opera House, part of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series; it played Dallas once before, at the Music Hall in Fair Park, in 2014. With book by Joseph Robinette and songs from Tony and Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen, Dogfight), A Christmas Story, The Musical has become a red-hot holiday ticket at venues around the country.
And Nobrega, a longtime actor who works primarily on TV (Jane the Virgin, Criminal Minds), is delighted to be back playing one of the show’s most memorable parts, Ralphie Parker’s “Old Man” Frank (Darren McGavin in the movie)—a grouchy, swearing working stiff bedeviled by the neighbors’ smelly hound dogs and oh-so-excited by a package that comes in the mail. (Hint: it’s a woman’s leg. And the leg is a lamp.)
Nobrega, who collected great reviews last season, was asked to come back and do it again this year and next—and says he couldn’t be more delighted.
“The movie is a holiday classic people love to watch and re-watch. They’re going to see what’s different about it, but they also want to see the story they know and love. Like the movie, it’s all meant to be a loving look at the way it was, back in the 1940s.”
We caught up with Nobrega by phone in Louisville, Kentucky—the tour’s second (of seven!) stops in the month before Christmas. We compared Dad notes (both our fathers were Notre Dame grads and Navy men) and talked about the actor’s life, working with kids and dogs, and how the show’s songs give us a deeper look at each of the Christmas Story characters we think we know well.
TheaterJones: I’m interested in your family name. Italian? Spanish?
Paul Nobrega: You’d say NAH-breh-ga. It’s a Portuguese surname. My family comes from Funchal [capital of the Madeira islands off North Africa], so it’s different even from mainland Portuguese names—and it’s found in Brazil too, where the language is also Portuguese.
But I grew up in Minnesota. We traveled around quite a bit when I was a kid; I was actually born on a naval base in Florida because my Dad was stationed there. But by the time I have any real memories, we’re in Minnesota.
So that’s familiar territory, the winter weather of A Christmas Story—snowball fights and licking the frozen flagpole?
Oh, yeah! I related to the story immediately, remembering all the snowy winters and holidays we had!
And the months of heavy coats, hats, gloves, boots, mufflers?
There’ a great scene in the show where Mother puts Randy, the little brother, in his snow suit, and he’s so stiff he can’t put his arms down. That was us. We went to school dressed like the Michelin Man, and once we got there took off layer after layer. When the temperature got up into the 20s in the winter, we thought it felt balmy. And we didn’t have many snow days—we were a hardier breed, all of us just expected to find our way through the snow.
Now, I have to defend Texas ‘hardiness’ a bit. Our ice storms are much tougher to deal with than your snow—there’s always some guy sliding backward toward you in a pickup truck. Ice is crazy; we need to stay home.
But back to the show! You’re playing the father, Ralphie’s “Old Man.” I grew up with one of those ‘50s, ‘60s dads, and though we loved him, but he was definitely not a pal, he was the boss. Does “The Old Man” remind you of someone in your own life?
My dad, no question about it! A lot of my peers’ parents might have been a bit more liberal; my dad was old school. Last year, I wrote in my program bio that I was “proud to be playing my own father.” There’s a great line in the show, that just because they [your parents] said ‘you’ll shoot your eye out’ and ‘stop complaining’ and ‘go to school’ and ‘eat everything on your plate’ it didn’t mean they loved you any less. That’s how they said they loved you. I think it’s one of the play’s great messages.
You said some time ago that you thought this musical version of A Christmas Story helped us know “The Old Man” and other characters in a different way—through its songs.
These guys Pasek and Paul are brilliant, brilliant songwriters; they have the Tony Awards and Oscars to prove it. And their songs for this show, if I’m not mistaken, were the first ones they wrote for a major musical. It opened on Broadway in 2012, and was nominated for three Tonys the next year. They were so new at the time maybe they weren’t recognized, but now they’re beginning to be talked about as the new Rodgers and Hammerstein. They’re really special. And the way they write and craft the songs just seamlessly integrates from the story line into the mind of the character.
It’s really an inner monologue. You learn things about the character that you couldn’t show in the movie. The movie is action-based, you see what people do. But here the music gets at what’s in the mind of the character. And in my case, I think you see a softer side of Frank Parker. He’s grumbly and angry a lot of the time, but you see what gets him excited and realize that inside this guy, there’s just a little kid.
He and Ralphie both want a toy—they’re just really different toys!
That’s right! Ralphie wants the BB gun; The Old Man wants the leg lamp.
So, what’s up with the lamp? Why is he so thrilled to have it?
The dad does crossword puzzles. The 1940s were a big time for that—a golden age. And he finally gets to the semifinals and wins an award. So for him, it almost doesn’t matter what comes in that big crate. If it was a fruit basket instead of the incredibly tacky leg lamp, he’d display it in the window. It’s a MAJOR AWARD, and the whole world needs to know about it.
And in the musical, there’s a huge Busby Berkeley-style dance number with Frank parading around, carrying the leg lamp. He’s celebrating, saying ‘Look at me!’ It’s a lot of fun.
I hear you do some high stepping in that one. Have you had dance training—is this something you’ve done over the years?
Well, I’ll tell you…No! Mostly I do television and film in Los Angeles. The last time I did musical theater was in high school, a long time ago. When I got the job, I told them, ‘Guys, I don’t know—I’ve sung all my life, but not professionally. And I don’t dance, not at the level of these amazing triple-threat people in the show.’ I really hesitated. But they booked me some voice lessons, and the choreographer was terrific, and dance captain Brooke Martino [who re-worked the Broadway choreography for this touring production] worked and worked with me. And my understudy Brennan was very generous with his time.
But then I thought: ‘Hey, this is Frank Parker. This is his dream—and he’s not going to be a great dancer, he’s just a grumpy old guy.’ So I decided to embrace that. But still, I always want to improve, so I took more voice lessons this year, and dance lessons to work on the choreography—though I won’t say to ‘perfect’ it.
If the old theater jokes are true, you’re living the actor’s worst nightmare—working with kids and dogs?
Never do that, they say—and I’m working with both. But they’re wonderful! Doug Terranova trains the two ‘Bumpus Hounds’ in the show [who steal the Christmas turkey], and I just adore them. I play with them in the dressing room, and we work a little together at every new venue. And they get time off during the day to run around someone’s back yard, too.
The kids are great. [On this year’s tour, Michael Norman and Ian Shawwill alternate the role of Ralphie Parker.] They’re from all over the country, the best at what they do in every state. And I watch what they do and think ‘Okay, I need to up my game, keep it sharp.’ And they have boundless energy. After a show, I’m kind of tired, but not the kids.
One reviewer last year said he thought Mother and The Old Man had a more romantic, interesting dynamic in the musical than in the movie.
Yes, this is a more intimate look at the two of them. If the movie had been a TV series, perhaps they would have shown more of the loving side of that relationship. Here, there’s a little more time spent, a little more expressed, though we don’t overdo it. It’s been great working with Briana [Gantsweg] this year, and Sara [Budnik] last year too.
What’s different between this tour and your first one last year?
As an actor pursuing television work, getting to do a second season of a TV show is amazing. It’s so rare that your character gets a chance to grow like that. And after being warmly received [by audiences in 2017] and invited to tour again this year, I feel like there’s more I can give and learn. Within the first month you let the role get into your body, and then you start to discover new things as you’re working—something doesn’t go right: a prop isn’t in the right place, a door is closed when my line is ‘Who left the back door open?’ You have to make something up right on the spot. I love that; it keeps you on your toes, keeps you present. I think the audience responds to that—it’s the beauty of theater. I don’t force it, but I try to find that something new and just play, within the context of the show. That makes it fun.
You’ve been a working actor—that’s a term of honor, I think—for more than 20 years now. That means you must want it, and it must give you something.
For every actor there are lean years when you wonder if your parents were right. I graduated from Notre Dame, got a ‘real’ job at Honeywell in systems and research, and worked on some top-secret projects [he held a high-level FBI security clearance] on things that have now become reality, like the Mars Rover. As a twentysomething, that was fascinating.
But I’d had the acting bug since I played Judd in Oklahoma! in high school—on a dare, because I was a jock and never gave theater a thought. I tried out, got the part, but then told the director I didn’t really want to do it. He said: ‘You’re doing it.’
And it was amazing. That feeling had never left me.
My boss [at Honeywell] said, ‘It’s a hard life, you know’—but I started doing local plays, and an agent said he’d like to represent me. I did commercial and industrials, went to LA and worked on TV.... It goes up and down, but the last five or six years I’ve been blessed. [Nobrega is proud of being the international spokesperson and “Movieologist” for the Cinemark theater chain headquartered in Plano; he’s seen regularly on 5,000-plus screens.] And I absolutely love it. People make more money than I do, I’m not getting rich. But when a job can nearly bring you to tears at times, that’s a special life.
Touring is pretty intense. Do you have the energy to see something of the cities you find yourself in?
Yes, we always try to get out and do at least one thing, and sometimes more. My friend Chris Carsten, who plays the writer Jean Shepherd and is fantastic in the role, has a daughter, Maisie, who’s one of the children in the ensemble, and her best friend Kaylin is also with the show. When we played Knoxville, the four of us went to the Muse, a wonderful children’s museum. Later today [in Louisville, Kentucky] we’re probably going to the Muhammad Ali Museum. That’s the beauty of being on tour.
Your last performance is just before Christmas, and then you’ll go home to…where?
To Minneapolis, to spend time with family. Looking forward to that.
Wishing you lots of snow—but no blizzards.