Miracle on 34th Street – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

In 1963, when the Meredith Wilson Christmas musical first appeared, it was called Here’s Love. In fact, theatre purists still refer to the show by its original title. And if you look for the original cast album you’ll only find it only under the ‘H’ tab. But after a nineties revival in Toronto, and a second, more lavish production by the same company in 2007, the name was changed to the more popular and certainly the more recognizable Miracle on 34th Street.

Performing until December 29 in Peoria at Arizona Broadway Theatre is a new production of the rarely performed musical. For those who know the film and are basically wanting to see what they’ve already seen but with songs, the live show follows the movie’s plot with little deviation. Kris Kringle (MJJ Cashman, the perfect Santa) is hired at the last minute to be the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Santa Claus. “Smile, wave to the children, and pretend to be kind,” Macy’s Promotional Director, Doris Walker (Melissa Mitchell) instructs the new replacement.

But there’s no pretending with Kris Kringle. The first sign of how seriously the man with the real white beard takes the role is when he joins the crowds outside of Macy’s Manhattan store department and informs a toy street seller that his Prancer is standing where Blitzen should be and that Donner should have a four-point antler, not a six. The problem is, Kringle is not only a convincing Santa but also insists he’s the real thing. “I must say,” says Doris, “You’re the best one I’ve seen.

Which is why an interview with Macy’s store psychiatrist, Mr. Sawyer (Jay Roberts) ends badly. Convinced that Macy’s new employee is dangerous and should be committed, the police haul the old man away to languish in a cell until his day in court.

Fortunately, if the play’s adaptation does one thing right that the disappointing 1994 movie remake got completely wrong, the outcome in the courtroom is the same as in the original, which is exactly as it should be. But for the benefit of those new to Miracle on 34th Street and for whatever reason have never seen the classic 1947 original – really? – that’s where the synopsis ends.

Lyricist and composer Meredith Wilson wrote three musicals produced on Broadway. His most famous and easily the most accomplished remains The Music Man, a superb piece of musical theatre that never ages. But while there are some minor problems with Wilson’s book adaptation of the famous film that a little tweaking could easily fix, his score for Miracle is quite the Christmas turkey. Despite the fine voices of ABT’s cast – both its leads, Melissa Mitchell as Doris and Cody Gerszewski as retired Marine Corp officer Fred Gaily possess outstanding singing voices – nothing can help the ordinary tunes.

There’s an element of Seventy-Six Trombones in the score’s John Philip Sousa inspired overture when the drums of a marching band fade up, followed by a burst of trumpets and trombones under conductor and music director Joshua Condon’s leadership. Plus, in the song She Hadda Go Back talked/sung by Gerszewski’s Fred you can hear an echo of The Music Man’s Trouble (for the record, with his aggressive and clear sounding, all-American delivery, Gerszewski would make a great Harold Hill). But nothing can save a dud like Look, Little Girl, not even Mitchell’s pleasantly sung reprise. And with several mediocre ballads unevenly placed, the score gives the impression of a show with too many mood swings.

Kara Thomson’s scenic design makes good use of a painted scene drop of Macy’s front entrance with some highly effective partial stage sets that slide on for individual scenes. Particularly impressive are the wooden courtroom and Fred’s brownstone home living room sets. Savana Leveille’s costumes of Santa, toy soldiers, mailmen, dancing toys, and an ensemble of characters dressed for December all display a nice sense of period – the show was meant to be present-day, but present-day in ‘63 was fifty-five years ago – though it would have been better to have seen the Marine’s in their dress blues as they’re supposed to be in a public setting rather than generic military.

In addition to the two romantic leads and Kringle himself, Tony Blosser impresses as store owner R.H. Macy (a character who actually passed away in 1877 – another Christmas miracle on 34th street?) while on the performance seen for this review column it was Emily Grace Anton who made a perfectly sweet Susan, the role of the child who never believed in Santa until she met Mr. Kringle. Though why the child sleeps on the living room couch rather than her bed appears somewhat strange. Susan is played on alternate nights by either Emily or Ava Newton.

Emily’s duet with Cashman’s Santa, a short reprise of Pine Cones and Hollyberries is one of the nicest musical moments in the show, along with an equally brief duet sung earlier with a little girl from Rotterdam that Santa can sing perfectly well in Dutch, natuurlijk. Though Jay Roberts’ store psychiatrist is written and performed as too much of a pantomime villain, a man who for no apparent reason delights in firing people and ruining their careers. “Get out before I throw you out!” he shouts at Santa. He’s overzealous and over-played.

For all its source material faults, which help explain why the show is rarely performed, undemanding audiences hungry for something festive with the family will probably still enjoy ABT’s James Rio directed production. With the Christmas wreaths hanging around the two lamps that flank the stage and the show’s overall colorful design, including lighted Christmas trees and seasonally decorated sets, ABT does what it can to add twinkle and make an ordinary work at least appear attractive, aided by the climactic courtroom scene that can’t fail to satisfy.

And, as is often the case at ABT, the seasonal festivities extend beyond the stage and into the theatre lobby, giving audiences not only the chance to mingle with the cast after the show in nicely displayed holiday surroundings but also plenty of photo ops to boot.

Miracle on 34th Street runs now until December 29 at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria

Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin

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