Miracle on 34th Street offers family fun
- Written by Susan Scott
Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical
Book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson
Based on the story by Valentine Davies and screenplay by George Seaton
The Grand Theatre
November 21-December 30
By every measure, Miracle on 34th Street is a classic story. Television networks trot out the 1947 film, starring Maureen O’Hara and the precocious child-actor Natalie Wood, every Christmas to help launch the holiday season. Part of its eternal appeal is the triumph of faith and wonderment over cynicism and avarice, which fits right in with the Christmas sentiment.
In 1963, Meredith Willson turned Miracle on 34th Street into a musical, with the song “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” being its most famous legacy. It is this version that appears at The Grand. While the film and musical share the same characters and plot, the two are as different as night and day.
The black-and-white film has a harsh, edgy feel that reflects the scepticism of the heroine Doris and, by extension, her daughter Susan. They both think that if you can’t see, touch, hear, or smell something, it isn’t real and therefore has no value. The film’s dark undertones gradually lighten as the magic of Christmas, ability to dream, and faith in love seep into their lives. This transformation comes about through the efforts of their ardent neighbour Fred and their encounters with the charismatic Kris Kringle, who believes that he, and he alone, is the real Santa Claus.
The musical, by contrast, is colourful and, as would be expected, the characters sing and dance their way through the two-act plot. While musicals can be great fun, disturbing, or dramatic, in this case the art form seems at odds with the themes – disillusionment, materialism, and redemption – that permeate the narrative. While there is humour in the original screenplay, turning Miracle on 34th Street into an almost slapstick musical is another kettle of fish. A heart-warming, transformative story becomes light and frothy and just a little corny.
The Grand’s production, directed by Susan Ferley, has taken light and frothy and run with it. Its production of Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical is packed full of bright colours, shifting sets, and extravagant costumes. The characters, especially the secondary ones, are exaggerated and in some cases so over the top that they become cartoons rather than believable people. As the story isn’t a fairy tale or pure fantasy, but about everyday people who have lost and then regained faith in all that is beautiful and magical, such exaggeration dilutes the power of the story. While it will no doubt appeal to children, adults who are looking for a little more depth will be disappointed.
One of the limitations in reviewing plays is that the reviewer’s opinion is based on one show on one day. In the Saturday Matinee performance considered here, the Macy’s Parade near the beginning captured the event’s exuberance, as did the scene when Susan’s imagination finally runs free. In general, however, the first act seemed to drag and suffered from a lack of energy. Even Susan, played by seven-year-old Hillary Harkes, appeared to be yawning at one point. It wasn’t until the second act – when Kris Kringle is in court and Fred, a newly minted lawyer, is desperately trying to defend his client’s sanity and win Doris’ heart – that the characters connected and exhibited some real vibrancy.
Despite this initial lack of vitality, for the most part the actors did a credible job. Three did stand out, however. Brian McKay made an understated but believable Kris Kringle, and it was easy to imagine that he could indeed foster love and rapprochement in the hardest of hearts. Jonathan Ellul was memorable as Sawyer, a slimy, manipulative psychiatrist that everybody loved to hate. And eight-year-old Anna Bartlam was engaging in several roles, especially when she played The District Attorney’s son, Thomas Mara Jr., who inadvertently and hilariously blows his father’s case right out of the water.
The Grand always puts on a professional production, and Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical is no exception. The set design is striking, with its high-rise cityscape providing a consistent backdrop and interchangeable walls and props sliding effortlessly into place to create intimate spaces. The costumes, too, are terrific. They catch the period vibe perfectly with full skirts and crinolines. In the second act, the red and green dresses and red ties add a nice visual reinforcement of the Christmas theme.
Every December, The Grand presents productions that will be attractive to children. There is no doubt that with Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical it has succeeded in providing good family fare. Just wish that it had offered as much substance as style and that the power of the screenplay hadn’t been quite so lost.
Susan Scott is an arts writer and visual artist. Her drawings are on display in The Art Exchange’s Christmas Show and at www.londonarts.ca.