Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2007
“Is this what Christmas has degenerated into, Doctor? It’s pure commercialism. Is there no true Christmas spirit left in the world?”
Maybe I am turning into a real Grinch in my old age, but the NYSTI production of Miracle on 34th Street left me absolutely cold. I could not get myself involved or interested in any one of the three major plotlines – the trial of Santa Claus, the budding love story between Macy’s executive Doris Walker (Emma Parsons) and lawyer Fred Gailey (David Baecker), or the thawing of the heart of lonely young Susan Walker (Alison Lehane). Part of the problem was that I knew how it was all going to come out, like everyone else over the age of 12 in the audience. The other part, I fear, were lack-luster performances on the parts of the adult leads and a weak script.
The script is an interesting animal, adapted from Valentine Davies’ novel by director Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder, who is also the Producing Artistic Director of NYSTI, Will Severin, who has also scored the play and written the song Christmas Lives Inside the Heart that closes the show, and John Vreeke. Davies “novelized” his screenplay for Miracle on 34th Street after the success of the 1947 film starring Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn*, and the very young Natalie Wood. So this is not a stage adaptation of your favorite holiday film, it is a stage adaptation of the novel of your favorite holiday film. Hmmm...
In case you are either very young or have been living under a rock for the past sixty years, the plot concerns a man named Kris Kringle (John Romeo) is believes that he is Santa Claus. We are meant to believe so too. When the actor hired to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade shows up drunk, Kringle is hired to fill in, and his unorthodox sales skills (he actually sends shoppers to Gimbel’s when Macy’s doesn’t carry the toy their child is pining for) make him a media darling for spreading the “true Christmas spirit.” Eventually, though the store psychologist has him shipped off to Bellevue for testing and from there to the state Supreme Court to decide, once and for all, if he is telling the truth.
Kringle is hired by the recently divorced Doris Walker, who is lonely and bitter and bent on passing her anger at the world on to her young daughter Susan. Kringle helps both mother and daughter unbend and rediscover the joy of living. In Doris’ case this means opening her heart to the handsome lawyer who has been by her side all along, and who also represents Kringle in court.
For me the key problem with this story in all its forms (there was also a Broadway musical version called Here’s Love written by Meredith Willson which ran for about a year in the early 1960’s) is that it does to the Christmas season exactly what Kris Kringle announces loudly at the beginning that he abhors. It turns it into a season for acquiring, whether its material goods such as can be bought at Macy’s, or wishes miraculously granted. (Susan’s wish is a dilly, and she gets it too!)
There is absolutely no mention of the religious roots of Christmas, and Santa is linked not to Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem or Thomas Nast’s 1863 drawings of the “jolly old elf” but to the much older Dutch tradition of Sinter Klass, who comes on December 6, St. Nicholas’ Day, with his helper Black Pete and fills children’s shoes with treats. There is a scene in which Kringle speaks and sings in Dutch with a lonely little war orphan (it’s 1947, remember?) that is touching but also telling of Davies’ angle on the Saint and the holiday season.
I had anticipated that Romeo would be cast as Kris Kringle, and was looking forward to seeing what he would do with the role. Alas, none of the twinkle that he brought to Clarence the Angel in last year’s Christmas offering A Wonderful Life carried over into this plain vanilla rendition of Santa Claus. How much I would rather have seen the dynamic Joel Aroeste (here cast as R.H. Macy and Judge Henry X. Harper) or anyone who could have brought more energy and vitality to this pivotal role.
Lehane does a nice job as Susan. She is cute as a button and every director’s dream being an older child who can play much younger than her actual age. She is an 8th grader and it is a stretch to believe that she is six, but had they just upped Susan’s age to eight I would have believed Lehane in the role, but of course it is hard to believe in a child much over six believing whole-heartedly in Santa Claus. A casting dilemma to be sure.
Parsons is definitely a weak link as Doris, and I was puzzled by her British accent. Parsons is authentically British, and I am sure listening to her attempt an American accent wouldn’t have worked surrounded as she was by actual Yanks, but considering the horrors the British had been through during the Second World War having this character sound British was out of place. But beyond that I felt no relationship between Parsons and Lehane or Parsons and Baecker. And it wasn’t that those two performers weren’t trying.
Baecker is the most appealing of the adult leads, attempting to bring genuine warmth and a childlike enjoyment of all the holiday silliness to the role. He and Lehane interacted very well. If only Parsons wasn’t such a cold fish throughout the love story between Doris and Fred would have really sparked.
NYSTI stalwarts John McGuire and Carole Edie Smith were definitely scene stealers as flustered Macy’s employees Mr. Shellhammer and Miss Adams.
Like any NYSTI show, this one looks just great. Di Benedetto Snyder has cleverly reused the steeply raked set Victor A. Becker designed for A Wonderful Life and it works well again here, surrounded by a twinkling Manhattan skyline in miniature. The various levels function as everything from the reindeer pen at the Central Park Zoo to the New York State Supreme Court. My only quibble was that Doris Walker’s living room furniture stayed on the second level stage right no matter what its use, so that spectators at the courthouse appeared to be sitting on her living room sofa.
I don’t know of any theatre company that can do mid-century American costumes and hairstyles as well as NYSTI. Here costume designer Lloyd Waiwaiole has done a bang up job of evoking the period and bringing color to the basic black and grey tones of the set with colorful daywear and fanciful parade costumes.
The show opens with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I just love the Macy’s Day Parade** and gambol about the house on Thanksgiving morning shouting “Happy Macy’s Day!” after which I have to watch the whole three hours of NBC coverage because they show the numbers from Broadway musicals performed in Herald Square during the hour it takes the parade to get from the American Museum of Natural History at 77th and Central Park West to Macy’s on 34th Street. I get wildly excited to see big Broadway stars like Roger Bart and Kerry Butler sliding about in the slush.
But I digress.
The show opens with a 1940’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is quite different from the parade we see today. Started in the early 1920’s, the parade was not presented during the Second World War, then resumed in 1945, at which point it started to be televised. It is frankly impossible to recreate the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on even the largest stage, but Parade Choreographer Sean Patrick Fagan and Di Benedetto Snyder have done a nice job of incorporating many local youngsters into a festive little pageant that stays true to the post-war period rather than trying to emulate the garish commercialism of the modern parade. I got a big kick out of it (despite there being no Rockettes!) and it was obvious that the children involved did too.
I am not at all sure that I understand the current mania for seeing your favorite film presented “live on stage” (all four of the shows featured in this year’s Macy’s Parade – Young Frankenstein, Xanadu, Mary Poppins, and Legally Blonde – are based on popular films) but I am obviously in the clueless minority (Why have they made a musical out of “Clueless” yet?) If Miracle on 34th Street is your favorite holiday flick and you just love seeing films reimagined on stage, by all means go. There are some fun moments and all the kids are just great. But frankly, when I want to see my favorite movie, I rent the DVD.
The New York State Theatre Institute presentation of Miracle on 34th Street runs through December 20 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. I will be seeing the show on December 9 and posting my review on this page as soon as possible thereafter. As is always the case with a NYSTI production, this show is intended as educational theatre and is recommended for children 7 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)
For more information on this production I recommend picking up or clicking through to the NYSTI Study Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
* In an odd and confusing collision of the stars Edmund Gwenn, Ed Wynn, and Fred Gwynne have all been cast in various versions of this story over the years. Gwenn (original 1947 film) and Wynn (1959 TV version) have both played Kris Kringle while Gwynne played Mr. Shellhammer in the 1963 Broadway musical version Here’s Love. Yikes!
** Ever notice how people very often leave that pesky word “Thanksgiving” out of the proper name of this annual event? So many people do that Wikipedia automatically redirects them. The band Green Day even wrote a song entitled “Macy’s Day Parade.”
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007