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BWW Review: MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET Proves the Existence of Santa Claus

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Miracle on 34th Street

From the novel by Valentine Davies, Based on the Twentieth Century Fox motion picture, adapted by Mountain Community Theatre; Directed by Ilyse Robbins, Scenic Design by Erik Diaz, Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, Sound Design by David Wilson, Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Props Master, Joe Stallone; Production Stage Manager, Margaret Kayes

CAST (in alphabetical order): Elise Arsenault, MariAnna Bassham, Heather Buccini, Deirdre Burke, Kevin Fennessy, William Gardiner, Scott Giangrande, Talya Hamberg, Jesse Hinson, Jeff Mahoney, Harry McEnerny, Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, Sydney Newcomb, Sarah Newhouse, Haven Pereira, Gerard Slattery, Donna Sorbello, David Sullivan, Michael Underhill, Arthur Waldstein

Performances through December 29 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or www.stonehamtheatre.org

There are only so many plays for a theater company to choose from in the month of December and only so many times you can stage A Christmas Carol before the audience can recite the lines as well as the actors. Revisiting its selection from 2007, Stoneham Theatre presents Miracle on 34th Street, an adaptation from the beloved 1947 film (based on the novel by Valentine Davies) which starred eight-year old Natalie Wood as Susan Walker, the little girl who didn't believe in fairy tales or Santa Claus, and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, the man who gave her reason to believe.

This holiday season, Boston theatergoers have the opportunity to experience another adored film being given the stage treatment with the national tour of A Christmas Story, The Musical; adding songs and dance has only increased its charm, much to the relief of cultists who feared tampering with an iconic story. Unfortunately, Miracle on 34th Street does not fare as well in its stage bound version, despite the best efforts of all involved. Rather than making the story feel more intimate as might be expected when shrinking it from the big screen, the play deflates the impact of the central theme of restoring belief because it doesn't show sufficient cause for single mother Doris Walker's rigid practicality in parenting her daughter; nor does the play allow Doris' relationship with the Macy's department store Santa to develop organically before making her his champion.

Director Ilyse Robbins has a nineteen member all-star cast of adults and a crop of budding young thespians (from Stoneham Theatre's young company comes to Mainstage program) to work with, and a great team of designers to visually create the world of the play. Gail Astrid Buckley's costume designs authentically evoke the dress of the late 1940s and she even manages to craft a Santa Claus outfit that is a bit out of the ordinary. Erik Diaz constructs a fantastic SantaLand where the bearded one sits on a red velvet throne surrounded by toys and garlands interwoven with colored lights, and an official-looking courtroom where Kris Kringle's fate is decided. Days and nights are marked by shifts in Jeff Adelberg's lighting design, and Sound Designer David Wilson provides piped-in Christmas music and background crowd sounds for the Macy's parade and the court proceedings.

The miracle in Miracle on 34th Street is the ability of Kris Kringle (William Gardiner) to infuse the holiday with the true spirit of Christmas in the face of raging commercialism, harried shoppers, cynical doubters, and an overworked justice system that is ill-equipped to determine someone's identity, let alone his sanity. Gardiner's performance is both natural and magical, and I will admit that he convinced this (Jewish) writer that his character is the real Santa Claus. He has the obligatory twinkle in his eye and shows a knack for listening to each child who sits upon his knee. He exudes warmth as he takes an interest in the adults around him, as well, and establishes a genuine rapport with Harry McEnerny's sweet, innocent custodian Alfred who lights up when he talks about playing Santa at the YMCA each year.

Alfred is one of the first to recognize that Kringle is not like the other department store Santas, although the children take to him quickly and their mothers are impressed when he advises them to purchase sold out, in-demand items from rival stores (even Gimbel's!), much to the chagrin of the toy department manager Mr. Shellhammer (expressive, blustery Gerard Slattery) and Mr. Macy (Scott Giangrande). It takes patience, concerted effort, and a major assist from Fred Gailey (Jesse Hinson), a lawyer who's sweet on Doris, for Kris to win over Susan (Sydney Newcomb), but there'd be no story without her conversion. The script lays the groundwork for their burgeoning relationship, which is more than can be said for the supposed romance between Fred and Doris (MariAnna Bassham) or her reversal of opinion about all things realistic and truthful.

Hinson makes Fred likeable and sincere, but it is difficult to fathom what he sees in Doris when she scolds him early on and keeps her distance. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, she has the pressures of being a single parent and running the big parade, but she remains tightly coiled throughout in Bassham's interpretation and there is little that passes for warmth or romance between the two. When Fred throws caution to the wind and locks lips with Doris, they both seem more astonished and amused than aroused. Their lukewarm connection feels platonic, at best, which is all the more surprising because of their combined talents and the fact that Hinson and Bassham are real-life husband and wife.

The ensemble features several strong characterizations, including Deirdre Burke as Miss Adams, Donna Sorbello as Miss Sawyer, Sarah Newhouse as Mrs. Mara, and Michael Underhill in dual roles as Charlie Halloran and Dr. Pierce. Kevin Fennessy also splits his time between Drunk Santa and Judge Harper, the man with the thankless task of determining whether or not there is a Santa Claus. Robbins establishes a good tempo with smooth transitions and makes use of a red curtain to segregate scenes downstage. It works to use a table and a couple of chairs as an interview room at Bellevue Hospital, a desk for the Judge's chambers, and some balloon vendors amidst a group of observers to suggest the parade atmosphere. However, in the final scene in front of the curtain, we have to rely on the conversation between Doris, Fred, and Susan to spark our imaginations to envision Kringle's ultimate gift. It is the moment when the true miracle of the play should be palpable and uplifting, but it falls flat.

Photo credit: David Costa (William Gardiner as Kris Kringle and cast)


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