'Miracle On 34th Street' A Modestly Charming Play With Music
Now on the boards at Theatre Building Chicago is the first edition of Porchlight Music Theatre's hoped-for holiday tradition, "Miracle on 34th Street," an adaptation of the Academy Award-winning 1947 film (and its Valentine Davies source novel) by Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder, Will Severin and John Vreeke. Porchlight has added musical arrangements by Chicago composer Jon Steinhagen to the script, which was first seen at the New York State Theatre Institute and deserves a spot on the list of perfectly fine stage plays available for companies who are looking for recognizable holiday titles; that is, ones that don't have the word "Carol" in them.
However, it is carols that provide the music for this otherwise non-musical play, and unfortunately they hurt more than help, at least in the early going. Under the musical direction of Porchlight's Eugene Dizon, the cast sometimes sounds fine ("Carol of the Bells" was lovely, as were "Home for the Holidays" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" sung by the ensemble late in the production.) Actor James Nedrud delivered a moving (though short) version of "Silent Night," and the tots (or are they tykes?) in the cast were charming in one chorus of "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth." But at other times the cast was way, way ahead of the six-person orchestra (conducted by Tom King Clear), and at other times sounded like different (non-singing) actors than the otherwise competent (singing) ones they surely are. (Perhaps it was opening night jitters, or the wrong sound level for the orchestra's speakers-sound design by the otherwise exemplary Joseph Fosco.)
The familiar tale of an old, benign and bewhiskered man in mid-century post-war New York City, who believes himself to be the real Santa Claus and gets involved in the potential domestic bliss of a little girl with doubts, her mother with a career and the lawyer/friend/boyfriend who rescues all three of them, is fully intact here. The show should delight the young ones, particularly girls around ages 6-9, I would imagine (they can even get some private time with Kris Kringle himself after the show!). Adults may find the going a little slow, I'm afraid, though the emotional stakes do grow a bit and the threads begin to come together about halfway through the intermissionless ninety minutes.
Jim Sherman plays Kris Kringle (or is he...........you know?) with an almost creepy sense of crusty, doddering wisdom. He's likeable, but boy, he seems to be living out the real deal here. (How much department store experience does he have???) As little Susan Walker (played to perfection by Natalie Wood in the original film) Laney Kraus-Taddeo is sweet, smart, pretty and real-a great job by this young but experienced actor. As her nothing-but-common-sense working single mother, Doris, Christa Buck is cut from pretty much the same cloth-sweet, smart, pretty and real. It's enjoyable watching her walls crumble, little by little, as the show progresses, and she wears business suits like she was born in one. And as their hero in yet another business suit, Karl Hamilton is charming, aw-shucks handsome and all about gettin' it done as Fred Gailey. Who could possible say no to him? (The scene design by Ian Zywica and lighting design by Gary C. Echelmeyer are acceptable, by the way, but may have played a budgetary back seat to the Manhattan holiday costumes designed by Jana Anderson.)
The fine and intimate work of the production's four leads is very nearly sabotaged right off the bat by two things. First, the otherwise fine projections by Liviu Pasare start off with a picture of Manhattan that is definitely not from mid-century-the twin towers of the World Trade Center are in it, and not in a good way. This should be changed. And the show's opening sequence, apparently a depiction of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, consists of a musical number centered around "Here Comes Santa Claus" that is part children's birthday party, part theme park fuzzy character show and part vaudeville sidewalk promotion. I didn't get it until it was over. While not a bad idea on paper, it just didn't work for me. The choreography by Annie Hackett was well executed, but the number isn't well integrated into the rest of the show by director L. Walter Stearns.
The other eleven cast members include three adorable kids (Charlotte Van Ermen, Clara Radtke and Alex Radtke, who gets the show's biggest visual gag) and an assortment of hard-working character actors. Rebecca Chicoine's Dr. Pierce is fun, Matthew Wilson Miles makes a strong impression as Mr. Shelhammer, baby-faced James Nedrud plays two different characters with just a change of paunch, and Amy Olsen, Jim Heatherly, Rus Rainear, Chuck Sisson and young character lead Steve Tomlitz all get their moments to shine.
If you have a young one in the house who is reasonably well-behaved, and who doesn't know this story, take them to see "Miracle on 34th Street" at Porchlight Music Theatre. For the rest of us, I can't say that it's more than modestly charming, and that after it settles in and begins its cumulative effect. That old Kris Kringle magic just isn't there until after we get into the court proceedings involving his true identity. And a few carols sung as scene change covers don't deliver the snowflakes either, until the shopping scenes dissolve into something more closely resembling hearth and home, loved ones, faith and trust.
Perhaps this show can become a Lakeview holiday tradition. The central truths are here. But the trappings need a good dose of tinsel, ribbons and yulelogs. Maybe some pre-show cookies and cider would help! The uber-concept just isn't in place yet.
I hope that the performance I witnessed is just the beginning of a miracle on Belmont Avenue. Only the passing of time will tell.
"Miracle on 34th Street" runs at Theatre Building Chicago until January 3, 2010, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 pm and 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm. Tickets may be purchased through the box office at 773-327-5252 or at www.ticketmaster.com.