BWW Reviews: Ocean State Delivers Undeniable Holiday Spirit with MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, THE MUSICAL
There are a million different holiday traditions and every person has one of their own. Similarly, there are countless options for holiday entertainment, and everyone has a favorite. Many of the most beloved holiday movies have, over the years, been turned into musicals for the stage. From Dickensian classics to Capra's sentimentality to modern pitch-black dark comedies, there's something for everyone, now in musical form. Among these most cherished of holiday film-to-stage offerings is the classic Miracle On 34th Street, and the musical version is now making its New England premiere at Ocean State Theatre Company in Warwick.
Miracle on 34th Street, The Musical adheres closely to the 1947 film, which takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day in New York City and revolves around the new Santa Claus at the famous department store Macy's. As the story begins, an intoxicated Santa is replaced by Kris Kringle, just in time for the big Thanksgiving Day parade. When he begins working in the store's toy department, he shakes things up quite a bit, first by recommending that parents go to other stores to find their child's present, then by claiming to be the real and true Santa Claus. Accusations of insanity, a courtroom drama and a wonderful twist ending quickly follow.
Besides Kris Kringle, the story also centers on Doris Walker, a cynical divorced woman who works at Macy's and hires Kris, Susan, her equally cynical daughter, and Fred Gaily, a lawyer who lives next door to Doris and may or may not have eyes for her. Kris' presence causes all three of them to question what they believe in, rediscover their faith and find love in each other and the holiday season.
In 1963, the musical version, at the time called Here's Love, premiered on Broadway. It was written by Meredith Willson, who had previously written the also-beloved The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Watching the production at Ocean State, the similarities between 34th Street and The Music Man were surprising but very evident. Both musicals, although clearly different in important ways, have a number of the same themes, characters and archetypes, as well as similar songs and dance numbers.
Like Willson's Music Man, Miracle on 34th Street is a big, brassy musical. From the first note of the overture, the beautiful sound from the pit is rousing and exciting, not letting up until the final note after the curtain has come down. It's a consistently beautiful score, beautifully played by the musicians, led by Music Director Esther Zabinski, playing live at Ocean State, and kudos to the company for never pumping in fake music. It just wouldn't do justice to this kind of music the way the live orchestra does.
While Willson's score is fantastic, his lyrics are not so hot, at least not consistently. A couple of the songs are just unnecessary and/or ridiculous, even by musical theater standards. Some of the lyrics are laughable, with Willson really stretching a long way to find a rhyme and try to make it work. A silly number like "The Plastic Alligator" just feels like filler to add more music and make the show longer, even if the theme of "if you sing it, it's true" becomes important later on.
On the other hand, there are some great songs as well. Doris' solo number in Act One, "You Don't Know" is a nice moment and the big ensemble number "Here's Love" is one of the show's real highlights, along with "Pine Cones and Holly Berries." "The Big Ca-lown Balloon" is another outstanding ensemble number that helps the show get off it a promising start, featuring a wonderfully choreographed mini-Thanksgiving Day parade on stage.
Willson also wrote the book for the show and again comes off as hit or miss. There are differences here form the movie and some odd choices. In this musical version, Doris is not anywhere near as cynical, independent and tough as nails as she should be. She's softer around The Edges and seems to be more at the mercy of the men around her. Speaking of those men, the main one, Fred, is written as far less charming and earnest, and instead is kind of smarmy and a bit of a jerk. Also odd is just how sexist he is and really how sexist the whole show is. While it's true that men talked and acted that way back then, there are moments, like a horrible song around a poker table, that are blatantly sexist in an unnecessary way that doesn't do anything to add to the story or make the characters more interesting.
An odd choice in Ocean State's production specifically is the casting of Kris Kringle with actor Richard Koons. While he's a talented actor, he's too young for the part. It's curious that director Barbara Hartwig would choose to cast a younger actor and make him up to appear older rather than just casting an older actor. Koons also portrays Kris Kringle in way that just never really feels right. Rather than a kind, wise, gentle old man who may or may not be a little crazy, we get a cocky, arrogant Kringle who comes off as pompous and bombastic. He often feels like a guy pretending to be Santa rather than being believable as the real, true Santa Claus.
Megan Wheeler, on the other hand, is wonderful as this version of Doris. Wheeler is amazingly animated and expressive, giving a believable performance that is often hilarious. She also has a beautiful singing voice, although this musical doesn't let her really use it very often. Brigid Fitzgerald plays her daughter, Susan, and the two have beautiful chemistry and some great, touching scenes together as a believable mother-daughter pair. Fitzgerald shows great presence and confidence on stage, where she clearly has a future should she choose to pursue an acting career.
Jeffrey Funaro plays Fred Gaily and it's hard to say whether the problems with this character are ever his fault. This version of Fred isn't particularly likeable in that everyman, nice-guy, Jimmy Stewart-kind-of-way. Funaro does have some nice musical moments and his scenes with Fitzgerald are sweet. His scenes with Wheeler, though, are awkward and clunky, though that's primarily because of the writing. This is especially true of the scene in Act One, which comes across like a poor attempt to force them to have some kind of flirtatious bickering.
Ocean State's ensemble is, as always, top-notch. There are fantastic dancers, gorgeous voices and some wonderful character performances. Matt Dasilva is perfectly annoying, in a good way, as Marvin Shellhammer. Mark S. Cartier makes a lovable business tycoon out of R.H. Macy. Josh Christensen and Daniel Larson are also hilarious in minor but pivotal roles. Additionally, this production features what may be the most adorable and talented cast of children you've ever seen.
Also top-notch are the show's technical elements. The set design by Lisa Pegnato is perfect, a masterful use of the space and a perfect example of what a set should do, helping to tell the story while never distracting from it. David Sexton's lighting design complements the set perfectly and works just as well, while Brian Horton's costume design is equally strong.
The famous quote "people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel," sums up this production's real strength. This show really isn't about the lines of dialogue or specific lyrics or minor moments between characters. It's about faith and love and how the holidays bring those two things into focus and into the front of our minds. When all is said and done, audiences won't remember the quirks and oddities of the script, lyrics or characterizations in this musical version of the movie. What they will remember is the way the show made them feel. They will remember the enthusiastic and sincere joy and hopefulness. They will remember the boundless positive energy and unforgettable emotional high. They will remember how the show made them smile and the music warmed their hearts and raised their spirits, just like any beloved holiday classic should.
Miracle on 34th Street, The Musical, is presented at the new Ocean State Theatre in Warwick, at 1245 Jefferson Boulevard, through December 29. Performances are Wednesday (except December 11 & 25) through Saturday evenigns at 7:30pm, with matinees on Thursdays (except December 19 & 26), Saturdays (except December 7 & 28) and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $39 - $54 for all non-preview performances and are on sale at the box office Monday through Friday from 12 noon to 6:00pm, Saturdays from 12 noon to 4:00pm, and from 12 noon until curtain time on performance days. Tickets are also available via telephone at (401) 921-6800 or through OSTC's website at www.OceanStateTheatre.org.