Believing in the Christmas Spirit
The Grand Theatre has a tradition of mounting a heart-warming family-friendly Christmas show and this year’s production of Miracle on 34th Street fills the bill.
Based on the 1947 movie (with child star Natalie Wood as little Susan) this musical is fundamentally the same story, with a few changes to the plot. Doris Walker, a jaded divorcee, is the organizer of Macy’s Santa Claus parade, where she conscripts a very convincing gentleman to replace the original drunken Santa. But while she does her job for Macy’s making children happy, at home she insists on cold reality for her only daughter, telling Susan there is no Santa Claus. However, a friendly bachelor-neighbour, Fred, charms the aloof Susan and creates some fun in her life. Doris’ tough exterior begins to melt when she finds out that her stand-in Santa, Kris Kringle, is in court because he says he is Santa Claus. Fred, an aspiring lawyer, defends Kris Kringle, and, well, the requisite happy ending falls into place.
This musical version was written by Meredith Willson, author of The Music Man, a very popular and much-loved show. Unfortunately, Willson’s script for Miracle on 34th Street (originally entitled Here’s Love) doesn’t quite have the lively appeal of The Music Man, and its pace is somewhat uneven, slowing down in places in the first act. The action picks up with the courtroom scene in Act II.
The highlight of the first act is the opening parade itself: with a cast of only 16, director Susan Ferley creates a full parade, and they cross the stage as various characters with many costume changes. A ballerina en pointe and a stilt walker are both enthusiastically applauded. A disgruntled Miss Muffet gets laughs for “her” spider, and the Wizard of Oz characters are a familiar addition. Santa’s amazing float draws gasps of appreciation when it concludes the parade. Also creating a touching moment is little Susan’s visit to Toyland, where Raggedy Anne & Andy come to life, and a toy pony dances along with them.
Brian McKay is the charming and delightful Kris Kringle. When his faith in people is restored, he is able to instill the spirit of Christmas in all those around him. McKay is precisely what everyone imagines Santa Claus to be.
Blythe Wilson is perfect as Doris, making the journey from cynic to optimist. Her beautiful voice resonates throughout the show, and it’s particularly nice to hear her sing the familiar It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas (also known as Pine Cones and Hollyberries). What a pleasant surprise to learn that this is where that song originated.
Little Hillary Harkes takes on the demanding role of Susan, rattling off her lines, trying to keep pace with her obviously tiring schedule.
Anna Bartlam is outstanding in multiple roles, including the Dutch-speaking girl and little Tommy. She charmed audiences last summer as Molly in Annie at Huron Country Playhouse. Young Katherine Gray is also good as Henry.
The rest of the cast are all excellent, some taking on several roles and many wardrobe changes. Costumes are colorful and plentiful adding to the magic of the show. The set gives us a New York cityscape, with various furnishings being whisked in out for different locations. There is even a delightful ice-skating scene.
So while the script may lag in some places, a very talented cast more than compensates for any shortfalls. They tell the story with great warmth and it is certainly a worthwhile family outing. This will give back the joy of Christmas to any world-weary audience.