It began to feel a lot like Christmas when the musical version of one of the most heartwarming holiday classics of all time, Miracle on 34th Street, enlivened the stage at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater right before Thanksgiving.
A holiday show is a genre all its own. It must be family friendly, and evoke nostalgia and sentimentality while it tugs on our heartstrings, yet have music and glitz that fire up the imagination.
Directed by Richard Dolce, the theater’s producing artistic director, Miracle on 34th Street delivers this and so much more.
Valentine Davies’ sentimental tale, which pits the yearnings of our inner child against the dictates of reason, inspired the Academy Award-winning 1947 movie starring Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood. The book, music and lyrics for the musical were penned by Meredith Willson of The Music Man fame. The extremely gifted composer, songwriter and playwright’s deep understanding of human nature shines throughout this production.
This show transports us back to Manhattan in the early ’60s. It’s Thanksgiving morning, and families are embracing the gaiety of the season and anticipating the big parade. Doris Walker, a single mother and Macy’s Department Store executive, has the challenge of orchestrating the festive procession down to the letter.
Soured by a failed marriage, Doris is all work and no play, a staunch pragmatist who has discouraged her young daughter Susan from believing in anything remotely imaginative, including Santa Claus.
Yet after Susan develops a relationship with charismatic Fred Gailey, a retired marine captain who is about to embark on a career as an attorney, she cannot help but start to believe in the Jolly Old Elf and long for a father.
Meanwhile, back at Macy’s, a major stumbling block is miraculously averted when a rosy-faced gentleman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus—and going by the unlikely name of Kris Kringle—steps up replace the shamefully drunken gentleman hired to greet the kids in the toy department.
Kringle, who genuinely loves children, more than fits the bill and accomplishes the inconceivable by promoting good will between Macy’s and its rival, Gimbel’s. Here, Kringle breaks the fourth wall by distributing candy canes to the audience, adding to the festivity.
When Kringle indicates that he really believes that he is Santa, he is subjected to a psychological brow-beating by Dr. Sawyer, an egotistical psychologist, and threatened with commitment to Bellevue Hospital.
Willson’s treatment of the romantic subplot adds new dimension to the story. Doris and Fred immediately get off on the wrong foot, and express their mutual disdain in the delightful duet, “Look, Little Girl.” There seems to be no common ground between Fred, a confirmed bachelor who refers to women as dames, and Doris, a smart cookie who has succeeded in breaking Macy’s glass ceiling. Yet, their body language says otherwise, especially when Fred unexpectedly kisses Doris, and she kisses him back. Can these opposites really attract?
The action really heats up in Act II. I particularly enjoyed “She Hadda Go Back,” a delicious slice of musical repartee between Fred and his card-playing buddies during which Fred parades his knowledge of female reasoning.
Fred must somehow defend Kringle’s sanity and his honor by proving that the man is really Santa. Will this mission impossible be Kris’s undoing? The shenanigans that animate the courtroom are worth the price of admission.
Kevin McGuire, who plays Kringle, is a consummate professional who has appeared in Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and The Secret Garden. He begins to cast his spell as soon as he steps on stage, and the result is pure magic.
It is through the eyes of little Susan Walker that we navigate what we know to be true and our heart’s desire. She is alternately played by Meaghan Marie McInnes and Sophia Eleni Kekllas. Meaghan, who performed the night that I attended, is incredibly endearing. She graces the stage with great poise and she has a beautiful singing voice. When she smiles, you can’t help but be smitten.
Many may remember Kim Carson, who plays the doubting Thomasina Doris Walker, from her starring roles in Engeman’s The Music Man, South Pacific, and Camelot. She delivers an astoundingly charismatic performance and her singing is outstanding. Her Act II solo, “Love Come Take Me,” brought tears to my eyes.
The chemistry between Carson and Aaron Ramey, who plays Fred, her romantic sparring partner, rings true. Ramey, who has appeared on stage and on television, excels as a man who has unwittingly met his match.
A number of actors rein in the laughs with their own unique blend of comedy. These include Matt Wolpe (as Marvin Shellhammer) and John Little (Dr. Sawyer). I particularly loved the humorous song, “That Man Over There,” as delivered by R.H. Macy (Bill Nolte) and the ensemble during Kringle’s commitment hearing at the New York Supreme Court.
Kathleen Doyle’s costumes—the plaid dresses, the wonderful cloth coats—will have you nostalgic for this bygone era.
I believe that this is the ninth production that Antoinette DiPietropolo has choreographed for the Engeman Theater, and as always, her work is outstanding.
Miracle on 34th Street runs through January 4. Tickets can be purchased at the theater’s box office, 250 Main St, Northport, or by calling 261-2900 or going to: www.engemantheater.com.
(Photo credit: John W. Engeman Theater)