Like most of the instant-classic Film Independent at LACMA Live Reads, the show really started with its announcement. When Jason Reitman posted the official poster for “Stand by Me,” the series’ latest installment, he suggested that fans “look closely.” In the silhouetted figures at the bottom of the image, two of them had ponytails.
One week later on Thursday night, when it came time for the main event at LACMA’s Bing Theater, the cast for the film’s central quartet had been revealed. Kaitlyn Dever (a former Reitman cast member from his “Men, Women and Children”) would assume Wil Wheaton’s spot as Gordie, while Ellen Page would take on Chris, the role originally played by River Phoenix. Charlyne Yi would take the spot of the doughy Jerry McConnell as Vern and Dever’s “Last Man Standing” co-star Molly Ephraim would claim Corey Feldman’s Teddy.
Re-assuming his traditional directing duties (Laurence Fishburne handled last month’s “The Maltese Falcon” reimagining, while Mark Romanek presided over the zany antics of January’s version of “Dr. Strangelove”) Reitman took the stage after being introduced by Film Independent Film Curator Elvis Mitchell. In turn, Reitman revealed the cast one by one and with little preamble, began their version of Rob Reiner’s 1986 beloved classic.
As usual, this was the cast’s first complete run-through as a unit. Reitman explained that some of the actresses hadn’t even met each other before being together backstage, but that once they were underway, the cast would, as always, “find it as they go.”
For a film that thrives on quiet moments and doesn’t feature a bravura set piece or action sequence until well into the second act, Reitman’s disclaimer proved apt, but the arrival of Ephraim as Teddy jump-started the read’s energy. Even though the group hadn’t rehearsed together, from the singing of the “Paladin” theme song to the mocking belly laughter, this certainly didn’t seem like the first time Ephraim has quoted Teddy’s lines.
At these Live Reads, there’s a tiny joy in finding the small changes from the written version of the script. (The opening stage directions still preserved the title of “The Body,” the name of the Stephen King short story the script drew from.) But the true crowd-pleasing moments came from the lines and sequences ingrained in the minds of avid fans and casual enthusiasts alike. The first applause line of the night came with Yi’s delivery of “You wanna see a dead body?” Not only was it the line that promised a night of gold from Yi’s version of Vern, but it served as the point from which the rest of the reading flowed in rhythm.
Live Reads are distinct in what they lack: sound. For a film like this, the atmospheric markers of the slosh of river-wading, the buzz of hovering insects were gone. The low hum of the train approaching the unsuspecting cluster had to be imagined.
In the absence of those effects, the written words took over. Reitman spoke in his intro about his formative love for the film and that affection carried through in his stage direction duties. Despite the classic back-and-forth between the four youngsters, Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon’s evocations of a certain time and place remain an essential piece of the staged reading puzzle. Their script is the main factor in making audiences, in Reitman’s words, “nostalgic for a time you never lived through.”
One of the ways Evans and Gideon do that is through the music of the era. Instead of a simple placeholder description of “popular doo-wop tune of late 1957,” they make explicit reference to “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes. And though most of these music cues remained unplayed, “Lollipop” was the notable exception. When the script called for it, The Chordettes’ hit played throughout the theater, complete with all eight women on stage accentuating the end of the chorus with the trademark cheek-popping sound effect.
Although the straight line of seats is the standard setup for these live reads, “Stand By Me” showed why order and placement still matters. It was a natural fit to have the four main characters grouped in the center, but placing Yi and Ephraim next to each other and positioning Dever and Page side by side added an extra layer to those inter-group pairs. The script doesn’t leave for many moments of physicality that pair well with stationary microphones, but Dever’s simple reassuring pat on Page’s back after Chris’ milk money story added an extra emotional layer to the performance.
For most screenplays short of “12 Angry Men” (is it too late to request that for April?), Live Reads necessitate one or two of the participants to cover the parts that don’t quite muster enough screen time for a dedicated character name placard. And, as was the case this evening, those men and women are often some of the event’s standouts. The night’s only from-the-stage casting announcement, Sarah Thyre comfortably fashioned a half-dozen “Stand by Me” characters on voice alone, from store owner Mr. Quidaciolu to Pressman, the junkyard guard. Thyre’s faint, diminutive voice as the mayor in Gordie’s pie-eating short story was the role that got some of the biggest reactions from the individuals on stage.
Kristen Schaal and Collette Wolfe rounded out the teenage characters, with Schaal as the villainous Ace Merrill. Along with Thyre, the collective gang member actresses found a way to mine their menace for both laughs and tension. Schaal’s tough-guy voice was unsurprisingly funny when it needed to be and restrained during the climactic battle over the body: a microcosm of the delicate tonal balance the script and reading struck particularly well.
As The Narrator, Rosemarie DeWitt grounded the script’s more melancholy throughlines. The verbal jabs and stylings from the rest of the ensemble’s characters kept the laughs steady, but her version of Richard Dreyfuss’ omniscient storyteller laid the groundwork for the truest moments in the film’s final third. By the time she’d reached the description of the four friendships’ ultimate fates, you could hear a few sniffles coming from a handful of places in the theater.
Aside from a few conversations about Annette Funicello and a choice barb here and there, the show rarely called attention to its own gender swap. With Thyre, Wolfe, Schaal and DeWitt deftly handling the older characters, the rest of “Stand By Me” showed itself as a more inclusive portrait of youth, rather than one focused on burgeoning masculinity. The quest for acceptance, whether from parents or peers, is far from the sole purview of 12-year-old boys. Those kinds of rediscovered truths will always keep this series’ various constraints and reinterpretations fresh, far from becoming a cheap novelty or gimmick.
As DeWitt intoned the classic closing lines of narration (“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”), the familiar sounds of Ben E. King’s title track echoed through the speakers. As the performers rose to wave farewell and take their leave, a standing ovation too played them off. As Mitchell said at the beginning of the show, “Nobody does it better than we do.”
For more Jason Reitman, here’s the trailer for “Men, Women & Children”…