The spirit of Christmas is alive and well in Miracle on 34th Street, Meredith Willson’s 1963 musical adaptation of the beloved holiday film. While the retro songs and seasonal spectacle will likely appeal most to young children and to their grandparents, the show’s heartwarming — and fairly progressive — message of inclusivity and the inherent value of believing in something provides a timely lesson for one and all.
Kris Kringle (Bobby Rogers) is a benevolent older gentleman hired to play Santa for Macy’s department store in New York City by bitter, disillusioned single mom Doris (Meagan Douthitt at the matinee I attended, alternating with Cortlin Collins). In a touching song that brims with contemporary relevance, “You Don’t Know,” Doris reveals that she shields her young daughter Susan (Ella Harman, alternating with Juliet Gregg) from fantasy notions such as Christmas, Santa Claus, and the idea of a good man who will love and protect them.
What a coincidence that the duo’s handsome next-door neighbor Fred (Joel Yarborough) similarly dismisses women as nothing but “dames” looking to take advantage of him.
Matters become serious when Kringle is faced with being committed after a mean-spirited doctor (Gina Calvert) charges that his kindly claims of being Santa are symptoms of mental illness. Will he be found innocent in time for Christmas, and will Susan get her wish for a beautiful family home in the country? Even if you’re not familiar with the material, I think you know the answer, but the road to the inevitable denouement was filled with pretty songs and nice characterizations by the performers.
Rogers made for a sympathetic Kringle, believably playing 30-plus years older than his actual age. Eschewing the customary long white hair and fake beard, Rogers sported his own neatly trimmed whiskers, and some long, stylish gray braids that oddly didn’t seem out of place in the story’s 1960s setting; instead, one just guessed that Kringle might have roots in Jamaica. His joyous march through Macy’s and out into the streets was a jubilant endorsement of love, tolerance, and acceptance, beginning with the simple notion that Macy’s employees shouldn’t mind referring a child to rival Gimbel’s to find the right toy, but quickly expanding to proclaim the holidays as a celebration for people of all colors and faiths.
But top honors must go to sixth grader Ella Harman — although, of course, I now also want to see Juliet Gregg’s interpretation — who skillfully navigated Susan’s transition from junior Scrooge to a child dazzled by the wondrous potential of the Christmas season. Interestingly, Rogers, Douthitt and Yarborough were all decent singers, but sounded their best when harmonizing with Harman.
Director Charlie Goodrich ensured that his ensemble was constantly engaged in the story, with children romping in the background in anticipation of the Macy’s parade, and retail clerks busy with wrapping gifts while the main dialogue plays out around them. Miracle isn’t a dance-heavy show, but choreographer Christy Shealy Mills seized the opportunity when she could, with the large children’s ensemble showcased as tap-dancing Raggedy Ann dolls, adorable little prancing reindeer, toy soldiers, ballerinas and other iconic character types. Musical director Sharon McElveen Altman played keyboard, leading a five-piece live band, which included trumpet, trombone, flute and percussion, resulting in a rich and festive sound suggestive of seasonal marching bands.
The playwright is best remembered for The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, both of which ran much longer on Broadway than this work, which was originally called Here’s Love, but has reverted to the title of its cinematic source material in later revivals. Unlike his work in those bigger hits, Willson, an accomplished composer and lyricist, used no co-author for the script, and it shows. Plot points, that are made clear visually in the original film, sometimes got lost on stage, and scene transitions are sometimes awkward or abrupt. The score is pleasantly melodic but largely disposable, and the only recognizable single is “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which Willson actually wrote as a big band hit in 1951 and recycled here.
Yet when Danny Harrington’s lighting zoomed in on Susan with pinpoint precision, expanding into colorful kaleidoscopic patterns for her dream, “The Toy Ballet,” the little girl seated in front of me began bopping her head to the music with gleeful abandon. And that’s ultimately the production’s principal goal.
This version of Miracle has never been produced before in Columbia, and it’s a pleasant addition to the canon of family-friendly holiday programming that is as inevitable as holly and mistletoe in December.
What:Miracle on 34th Street
Where:Town Theatre, 1012 Sumter St.
When:Through Dec. 17