By Mike Handy
Miracle on 34th Street, a musical adaptation of the classic film, is a fun, family friendly show that will tickle all your Christmas funny bones. I grew up in Orem and have attended dozens of movies and performances at the SCERA over the years. Each trip to this special venue is an absolute joy. This gem of Utah County has been entertaining audiences since 1933 and I hope it will be around for many more decades to come. I attended this performance of Miracle on 34th Street with my fifteen-year-old daughter who, like her father, is also a musical theatre enthusiast. We both enjoyed the show immensely. It brings me great pride to share stories with her about my time as a youth spent at the SCERA.
Originally titled, Here’s Love, this musical version of the 1947 classic film Miracle on 34th Street includes a book, music, and lyrics written by well-known American composer Meredith Willson. It premiered on Broadway in 1963. There are a number of scenes and lines taken directly from the film so fans of the 1947 original and the 1994 remake should be pleased. While the major plot points remain the same, the bulk of the show is quite different than the film. My personal favorite musical is The Music Man also by Willson and I’m a fan of his style and musical genius. It’s easy to see parallels between the two shows in Willson’s inclusion of numerous pop culture references and his use of stylized rhythm in numbers like “Plastic Alligator” and “She Hadda Go Back”, which hearkens “Ya Got Trouble” and “Rock Island” from The Music Man. Many people are not aware that the classic holiday songs “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” come from this show. The way Willson blends these two songs together is reminiscent of “Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You?” also from The Music Man. Willson intended this musical to be set in the 1960’s, however, this particular production, by the costumes and hair styling, appears to be set in the post-war 1940’s.
The story beings on Thanksgiving Day outside the Macy’s Department Store in New York City where a crowd of people watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Finding the actor hired to play Santa Claus intoxicated, parade organizer Doris Walker (Natalie Merrill) is forced to ask a stranger who happens to be named Kris Kringle (Arden Hopkin) to step in at the last minute to fill the Santa vacancy. Kringle reluctantly agrees with the reasoning that the children attending the parade should not be disappointed. In the crowd, a United States Marine Captain, Fred Gaily (TJ Thomas), approaches a young girl named Susan Walker (Lydia Oakeson), Doris’ daughter, to ask how she is enjoying the parade. Fred is quite surprised to learn that Susan does not believe in Santa Claus or anything that she cannot see or touch as her mother taught her. Following the Parade, Doris and Macy’s Junior Executive Marvin Shellhammer (Logan Beaux) agree that Kris made a terrific Santa Claus and should be hired full-time for the store’s toy department. After hearing that the new Macy’s Santa Claus is sending customers to other stores, owner R.H. Macy (Garrett Smit) is initially angry with Doris but soon realizes the brilliance of marketing Macy’s as the store that puts customer service ahead of profits. Meanwhile, Doris is upset that Fred is trying to convince her daughter Susan of the reality of Santa Claus. This confrontation places Doris and Fred on a rocky road to romance. A few days later, the Macy’s store psychologist, Mr. Sawyer (Jarom Swanson) is disturbed that Kris claims to be the real Santa Claus, recommends his termination, and then fakes being attacked by Kris. This sets up a hearing in the New York Supreme Court where District Attorney Thomas Mara (Nate Allen) urges Judge Martin Group (Evan Allred) to speedily sign commitment papers for Kris. Susan convinces Fred to be Kris’ lawyer and defend him in court. The fate of Kris Kringle and Susan’s Christmas wish hang in the balance.
In the role of Doris Walker, Merrill looks and acts the part extremely well. Her classic 1940’s Victory Roll hairdo and costumes fit the time period. Merrill has a pleasant singing voice and she covers her solos quite competently. She really shines in scenes depicted in Doris’ office and in particular during the “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” duet with Kris Kringle. Thomas brings a lovable, All-American charm to the role of Fred Gaily. He looks quite sharp in the WWII era Marine Winter Service uniform. Thomas and Merrill have a noticeable chemistry onstage as an unlikely couple that eventually fall in love. His best moment in the show comes while singing with his Marine buddies in the “She Hadda Go Back” number. Merrill and Oakeson are a believable pair as mother and daughter and all of their interactions are a treat to watch. Oakeson absolutely lights up the stage as the precocious, young Susan Walker. She demonstrates that even at a young age, she is an accomplished actor with a beautiful voice. Oakeson is very convincing in her transformation from Santa skeptic to believer in Kris Kringle. Of course, the performance that brings the Christmas magic to this show is Hopkin as Kris Kringle. Hopkin’s portrayal is warm and gentle with an air of innocence that really bespeaks the character. There is certainly a wink and a nod to the Kris Kringle in the original 1947 film, but Hopkin makes the role his own.
Other notable performances include Smit as R.H. Macy who skillfully moves between the angry executive to the joyful Santa supporter. Smit also sounds fantastic singing in the courtroom during “That Man Over There is Santa Claus” and “My State, My Kansas.” In the role of Marvin Shellhammer, Beaux has great stage presence and his body language is quite comical fitting the character. His rendition of “Plastic Alligator” is very funny and entertaining. As the first of two antagonists in the show, Swanson brings a fluster and conniving attitude to the role of Mr. Sawyer that effectively sets up the legal drama to follow. In the role of District Attorney, Allen capably plays the lawyer who just wants to do his job while begrudgingly admitting there is a Santa Claus. Allred commands attention in the courtroom as the stodgy yet lovable Judge Martin Group.
Director Robinne Booth does an excellent job in bringing to life a holiday classic to the stage in a magical and charming way. Each actor is well cast in their various roles. The pacing is brisk and never drags. Music Director Dana Cardon clearly spent a lot of time rehearsing the music with the cast. The ensemble singing is precise and crisp with the harmonies blending beautifully. The dance choreography by Brodee Ripple is engaging and appropriate with each actor executing their steps with flair. Most of the costumes by designer Deborah Bowman fit perfectly into the 1940’s. The unique design of the Santa Suit is quite snazzy, skillfully constructed, and works nicely into the period as well. The sets by Scenic Designer Shawn M. Mortensen are detailed and visually stunning. Of particular note are the Macy’s storefront with its classic holiday window displays and the Toy Department store set that feels like an actual department store.
Miracle on 34th Street is a pure delight, appropriate for all ages, and will definitely make you feel the magic of Christmas. You will believe in Santa Claus. Be aware that the show runs approximately two and a half hours ending just before 10:00 PM. If you bring young children to the show, be sure to stay after the show and have your picture taken with Hopkin as Santa Claus in his beautiful suit on the set just outside the interior theatre doors.
SCERA Center for the Arts presents Miracle on 34th Street by Meredith Willson
SCERA Center for the Arts, 745 State St, Orem, UT 84058
December 1-16 7:30 PM
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