The first rule of Quad-City Music Guild's "A Christmas Story," director Bob Williams says, is give the audience what it's expecting, down to the Red Ryder Carbine Action Air Rifle With a Compass in the Stock and This Thing Which Tells Time.
"Because this one is so iconic, there are certain things you can't not have, like a slide, or a stairway for Ralphie to come down in his bunny outfit," said Williams, assembling a Goodwill vintage artificial Christmas tree on the stage of the Prospect Park Auditorium. "There's just certain things you can't edit."
"A Christmas Story: The Musical" ran for two months on Broadway in 2012 but was a nominee for best musical, best original score and best book (losing the first two to "Kinky Boots," the latter to "Matilda").
"The music is actually quite beautiful," Williams said of the score, to be directed by David Blakey. "This was written to be this little show, but it was so well-written that was one of four shows nominated for a Tony for best music that year.
"The music is gorgeous. Some of it is challenging."
A 1983 movie that became a holiday standard — one that a cable channel runs for 24 straight hours on Dec. 24-25 — "Christmas Story" is one of Blakey's favorite holiday films, Williams said, and each urged the other to take directing reins for the stage version.
"He and I talked about it when we knew it was coming down the pike," Williams said. "I was more than willing and happy to direct it."
Williams said the stage version "follows the movie closely, but it's still a musical where there are flesh-and-blood people in theater that have to move where costumes are being built," said Williams, who also designed the set.
Between differences in the script and the performers in the lead roles, there are some variations from the movie, Williams said.
"The musical has a whole lot more heart and a whole lot more warmth," he said.
As the father, "the old man," is Tim Dominicus, last seen in Music Guild's "Cats" this summer as Shimbleshanks. "He's hysterical, he's creative." The character is less of a comic curmudgeon, Williams said, and "shows a warm, emotional good dad side as well."
Shana Kulhavy, a veteran of Music Guild's "The Pajama Game" and "9 to 5" and New Ground Theatre's "Clybourne Park," plays the mother. "She is a mom so she always has this very warm, nurturing, motherly quality," Williams said.
"Her songs show an emotional depth to her and what her contributions are to the family beyond just putting food on the table and getting Christmas presents wrapped," he added.
Author Jean Shepherd, whose nostalgic recollections formed "A Christmas Story," is played by Music Guild mainstay Kevin Pieper. While Shepherd was a voice-over in the movie, Williams said, here he is an onstage narrator, interacting with the characters.
"His reading at auditions and at callbacks was so warm and emotion it literally brought us to tears," Williams said of Pieper. "We can't not use that."
Three of the young Music Guild cast members — including Ben Klocke, who played Ralphie — are veterans of the 2013 production of "A Christmas Story" at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse.
"They were very clear that they wanted to be cast in different parts than the ones they had," Williams said. "They went from being good kids to being the bad boys."
Joseph Brune, who already has credits including Circa ’21's "Les Miserables" and Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's "Seussical: The Musical," plays Ralphie.
Many parents and their children auditioned together for "Christmas Story," Williams said.
"We try to make it a family environment even more so than the standard Music Guild show," Williams said.
That creates its own challenges among its arts-focused young cast members.
"You have to be really creative with rehearsal schedules and realizing that conflicts come up," Williams said. "We've got 14 kids in this show who are involved in band concerts and choir concerts and all sorts of other things.
"We've had to be creative and flexible in our scheduling, not just for them but for the parents who are involved."
Williams, a veteran of directing 15 Music Guild shows who is taking a hiatus from being directly involved next year, said he enjoys directing the holiday productions.
"It's fun to start singing Christmas music in October without people looking at you oddly," he said.