Theater review: Miracle on 34th Street



Jolly St. Nick is known everywhere Christmas is celebrated, inflated into mythic omniscience that might qualify him to sit at the right hand of God, yet cheapened to coin-of-the-realm every November and December by legions of advertisers and fundraisers. What made Miracle on 34th Street so unique as a movie in 1947 is that it took Santa out of the uniform he wears at the North Pole, at department stores, and in TV ads and dressed him in street clothes.

George Seaton's Oscar-Winning screenplay, adapted from Valentine Davies' story, asked us what would Santa do amid the commercial bustle of New York City? Then he showed us in a storyline that is remarkably similar to the St. Matthew Passion staged last week by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. The main differences are that Jesus was traduced by Judas after the Last Supper at Passover, but in this lightened version, Kris Kringle is traduced by a neurotic vocational counselor while working as a store Santa at Macy's - and when Kris goes to trial, he has a better lawyer, our hero Fred Gayley.

One other key difference: people are flocking to see the stage adaptation written by Mountain Community at ImaginOn in a Children's Theatre of Charlotte production, while subscribers and the general public stayed away when Bach's Passion was staged for the first time at Belk Theater. Guess folks like happy endings during the holiday season.

Much of the jollity comes from Dennis Delamar as Kringle, simply ideal for the role. Now there is some crustiness to Kringle when he sees a drunken Santa disgracing the uniform at the Thanksgiving Parade, or when the vocational counselor delivers a lecture that denounces Santa as a toxic myth. But Santa is at his jolly best presiding over the Macy's throne, granting the children's wishes and directing their flummoxed parents to competitors who have the item in stock or stores that are selling it at a lower price.

Macy's supervisors Shellhammer and Santa-skeptic Doris Walker fire Kris for his idealistic honesty, devoutly believing that their store Santas should push Macy's merchandise. But Kris's honesty improbably turns out to be inspired business strategy, for both kids and their parents love Kringle's throne-side manner - and they let Mr. Macy know about it. Praised by Mr. Macy after they have fired Kris, Doris and Shellhammer must eat humble pie and coax him back. Kris's effect on the media and New Yorkers' holiday spirit even brings about a détente between Macy's and Gimbel's, probably the most prodigious miracle on 34th Street.

But for the season, we need a more heartwarming miracle than that. Fred is courting Doris, yet he's leery of a long-term commitment to a mother who is teaching her daughter Susan not to believe in Santa. Part of his belief in Kris comes from the beneficial effect he has on Susan when she sits in his lap at Macy's. There's more quality time when both Fred and Doris agree that Kris needs to upgrade his living arrangements after bunking with the reindeer at the Central Park Zoo. But Susan gives Kris a stiff challenge with her Christmas gift request; and its fulfillment, as Children's Theatre director Adam Burke stages it at McColl Family Theatre, retains its cinema magic.

Delamar has marvelous backup from this cast of 12 adults and 13 students. While there's just a toothpick's worth of difference between Ron McClelland's portrayal of Fred Gayley and his Virgil Tibbs from In the Heat of the Night, his approach works nicely when the lawyer hatches his stratagems in the climactic courtroom scenes. Doris is more dynamic and complex throughout this 75-minute fable, and Susan Sanford has a firm grip on her. Looser might be better. As Susan, Emily Bowers reminds us that kiddie skeptics can be bright rather than simply cute, pouting, and precious.

Comical gems are strewn everywhere, beginning with Mark Sutton's effete and fidgety Mr. Sawyer. Charles LaBorde has a couple with the Drunken Santa and the flabbergasted Judge, and the ever-reliable Steven Ivey shines as Mr. Macy. Darlene Parker is bustling and officious as Shellhamer, and Susan Roberts Knowlson gets a rare chance to wallow in the vulgarity of a New Yawk accent in one of her four cameos.

Matthew Baldoni as the prosecuting attorney Mr. Mara has numerous conniptions in court before his ultimate comeuppance, none more devastating than when Pryor Rhinehart testifies as his son James. Sidney Horton provides another shocker in court as Dr. Pierce, Kris's longtime friend, but he moonlights memorably as Mr. Gimbel along the way.

Set designer Dee Blackburn manages a Thanksgiving Parade, a plush Manhattan apartment, the interior of a department store, and a courtroom, not one of them humdrum. Shifts between scenes are nicely covered by either a newsboy hawking headlines or impromptu carolers, drilled by music director Drina Keen, singing snips of at least 11 different titles that I jotted down. Props by Peter Smeal, lighting by Timothy Hart, and costumes by Connie Furr are all up to the phenomenal level we take for granted at Children's Theatre.

If you haven't checked out an ImaginOn theater event before - or if you're merely looking for that proverbial holiday show for the whole family - you will find Miracle on 34th Street to be an absolute delight. We can be thankful for such an outstanding company and facility.

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