Ronnie Thom Farrell as Ralphie Parker with his best Christmas gift ever. PHOTO: Stephen Mease

A Triple Dog Dare: Ronnie Thom Farrell Takes the Flynn Stage

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Thursday November 02, 2017

From the moment he learned that Lyric Theatre Company was doing “A Christmas Story, The Musical,” Ronnie Thom Farrell did not need the unforgettable prompt made famous in the original movie, “I triple dog dare you” in order to audition for the lead role. No, this 12-year-old seventh grader at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School (FHTMS) was primed to play the iconic Ralphie Parker from the start, bringing to life his character’s quest for the best Christmas gift ever - a “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun.”

Opening night for the young actor will be November 9 at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, with five performances to follow through November 12. This is Lyric’s 91st production at the Flynn MainStage; a noteworthy accomplishment for the non-profit, volunteer organization. November’s production is a musical version of the popular 1983 film, “A Christmas Story,” based on the autobiographical short stories by Jean Shepherd. Many audiences will be familiar with elements of the 1940s story, a kooky leg lamp, pink bunny PJs, a cranky department store Santa, and a triple-dog-dare to lick a freezing flagpole. As Ralphie, Farrell gets to be part of all the nostalgia and comedy.

Farrell got his first taste of performing at the Flynn in the fall of 2016, when he played 10-year-old Tommy in Lyric’s production of the seminal 1969 musical by The Who about a young pinball wizard. His acting career was prompted by his two older sisters, who both have appeared in Lyric productions. 19-year-old Kailin, a second-semester freshman at Community College of Vermont, and 16-year-old Hannah, a junior at South Burlington High School, helped their brother learn his lines and coached him on movement and facial expressions. Rightly so, they take some sisterly credit that he landed the lead role in this holiday classic.

Being the main character in a musical is a major commitment. While some members of the ensemble get an occasional night off, Farrell attends every rehearsal because he is onstage for 95 percent of the time. He spends nearly 14 hours each week interacting with 31 other cast members, rehearsing musical numbers under the direction of Martin Hain and Megan Beaucage, learning the challenging choreography from Kate Whalen and Doris O’Brien, and getting acting tips from artistic director Kelly Kendall, a former longtime member of the South Burlington community.

As the ringleader of the 13 youth and teens in the show, who range in age from eight to 14, Farrell gets additional coaching from co-assistant directors Kate Kendall and Brent Garrow. “He’s an amazing young man,” reports Garrow, adding, “He’s so talented and he works very hard, but he’s also very humble. I can see him doing great things to come on the Lyric stage.”

Kelly Kendall, O’Brien, and stage manager Pam Carter are also fans of young Farrell whom they praised as a low-key, no-drama kid who is a joy to work with. He is in the center of the social circle of the cast and was off-book, lines memorized, before anyone else.

For Farrell, there are additional time commitments beyond rehearsal. For promotion, he has recorded radio and television commercials with his alter-ego in the musical, Bill Bickford, who portrays Jean Shepherd, the show’s narrator. He has tested elements of the set build, such as Santa’s slide, as well as costume fittings. In this latter area, the young actor has an advantage as his mother, Kerry Farrell, is the show’s costume designer. By day, Kerry is a nurse at Chamberlin School. She is currently taking the semester off from her pursuit of a Master’s in Public Health at the University of Vermont. She has designed two previous shows for Lyric, “RENT” and “The Producers,” as well as doing costumes for FlynnArts productions during the summer.

When asked what made her sign on to designing costumes for this particular show, Kerry replied, “I love working with kids and I really enjoy working with Kelly and Steve (Kendall).” Kerry is particularly happy to be helming the first costume crew to work in the costume shop at Lyric’s new creative facility in South Burlington. Volunteers have been sewing 40’s-era winter garb, cowboy outfits, and leggings for Santa’s elves, while others cut patterns, steam the wrinkles from dresses, and decorate hats. Farrell’s costumes as Ralphie Parker include a flashy red cowboy vest, furry chaps, and a sequined hat as well as the infamous pink bunny suit which he wears near the end of Act II.

As Lyric Theatre Company does not understudy any of its roles, Farrell is making sure he stays healthy for the production run. He reports he is even drinking vitamin water, but adds, “It tastes really gross.” The seventh grader keeps up with academics by using his free period to do homework. One thing he has had to forgo this fall is golf; something he enjoys doing with his dad. Senior Ronnie, a lifelong South Burlington resident, is the only non-theater person in the family. Says Kerry, “The poor guy gets dragged around to show after show, but he’s a trouper. He should be on stage; he’s funny and he can sing.”

Working on a musical set in a different era, Farrell has a new appreciation for what it was like to grow up as a kid “back then” when there were no electronics and kids played outdoors with their friends. One of his favorite moments in the show is when his character, Ralphie, hangs out with his two best friends, Flick, played by Asa Baker-Rouse of Middlebury, and Schwartz, played by Evan Reichelt of Stowe.

Farrell says he dreams of pursuing a career in theater, or being a doctor, “if the theater thing doesn’t work out” or teaching at FHTMS while staying involved with Lyric. Mother and son have enjoyed this opportunity to work on a show together. Kerry beams and shares, “I’m really proud of him.”

Meanwhile, Farrell continues to rehearse until opening night, November 9, remembering a tip he received from a fellow cast member, “Find something in the back of the theater to look at to keep your head up.” Advice that comes in especially handy in this particular musical, you know, so Ralphie doesn’t “shoot his eye out.”

By Patricia Boera for Lyric Theatre Company