Amid a year of callousness, a message of kindness is joyfully delivered in Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s production of Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical, touchingly directed by Shawn Kettering.
For a couple of hours, you get to put crudeness and rudeness aside to witness Americans being helpful, civil and gentle with one another. And not just because it’s Christmas, but because it is the right thing to do.
Needless to say, Miracle on 34th Street takes place in the past, in a New York bustling with postwar optimism and can-do. The lively musical is based on the 1947 movie of the same name, which starred a young Natalie Wood.
Wood played 8-year-old Susan Walker (the enchanting Camden Lippert alternating with Lilianna Robinson play it here), raised by her life-toughened, divorcee mother Doris (Heather Marie Beck, playing the role with crisp moxie and a singing voice with a trace of husk) to be a questioning pragmatist. All that rationalism gets blown to bits when Doris hires a fellow named Kris Kringle (Robert Beidermann 125, portraying Santa with such tender conviction he’d make a believer out of anyone) to be Santa at Macy’s in Herald Square.
The kindly Kringle beguiles Susan, as well as most of New York. Trouble brews when Kringle maintains he is the real Santa Claus and must be defended in court to keep from being thrown in the loony bin. Cue the love interest, Fred Gaily (Jeffrey Shankle, jaunty and full of schmoozy swagger that reminds you of entertainer Steve Lawrence), an ex-Marine turned attorney (through night school, natch), Doris and Susan’s neighbor who is as down on dames as Doris is on dudes.
The musical version, by Music Man composer Meredith Willson, debuted in 1963 and was titled Here’s Love. Receiving mixed reviews on Broadway, the musical languished in the vaults for a while, before regional revivals cropped up in the 2000’s.
Miracle on 34th Street isn’t a perfect musical—the tone and mood are all over the place like an over-sugared toddler and some of the songs seem like filler—but it is a sweet and heartfelt one, especially as performed by the top-drawer Toby’s cast.
Miracle on 34th Street
closes January 7, 2018
Details and tickets
Clad in snappily-tailored clothes and angled hats by costume designer Lawrence B. Munsey, the cast looks like a period photo spread from Life magazine as they perform with a lot of heart and not a trace of cynicism this story about the importance of wishes and believing.
Parts of the show will remind you of The Music Man,” such as the opening number “Big Clown Balloons,” which features marching children and exuberant trumpet and trombones dandily replicating the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Other Willson flourishes can be seen in the multiple harmonies of “Pinecones and Hollyberries”—which interweaves “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which Willson wrote in the 1950s—and fun patter songs in the “Trouble” vein, such as “Plastic Alligators,” a tribute to hard-sell ad jingles, and “She Hadda Go Back,” where a group of poker-playing fellas kvetch about a woman’s inability to be punctual.
Toby’s stalwart Russell Sunday, as retail mogul R.H. Macy, gets to show off his enviable pipes and savoir-faire while performing two second-act high points “That Man Over There” and “My State, My Kansas.” Tommy Malek is equally engaging as Doris’ over-ambitious assistant, who longs to be a suit but whose ebullient bursts of creativity suggest corporate life may not be his calling. David Jennings shines in every role he plays, whether a neurotic company psychiatrist or a member of the ensemble.
You have to admit, though, the experience of Miracle on 34th Street is not completely a smooth ride on Santa’s sleigh (which, coincidentally makes a triumphant reappearance at the end of the show at Toby’s). It’s troubling in this day and age to watch an 8-year-old girl running all over Manhattan with a strange man while her mother is at work and even calling him “Uncle” and one can only presume it was a more innocent and trusting time in 1963. But jeez.
A stiff slug of tolerance is also required when hearing lyrics that refer repeatedly to a grown-ass woman with a child and an executive position as “little girl.” Make it a double during Susie’s dream sequence, which is a rather sad affair despite toys and music box ballerinas springing to life. Surrounded by imaginary friends, Susie gets presented with a birthday cake aglow with candles and one kid pipes up and says, “You need a father to cut the cake.” At this point, you want to burst into Susie’s fantasy, take her aside and say “You need a knife to cut a cake, honey. Not a symbol of the patriarchy.”
Bothersome anachronistic and patriarchal attitudes aside, Miracle on 34th Street makes this tough old world a little warmer in its reminder to be kind, simply kind, to all.
Miracle on 34th Street, The Musical . Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson . Director: Shawn Kettering. Featuring: Heather Marie Beck, Camden Lippert, Lilianna Robinson, Jeffrey Shankle, Robert Biedermann 125, Tommy Malek, Russell Sunday, David Jennings, Santina Maiolatesi, David Bosley-Reynolds, David James, Justin Calhoun, AJ Whittenberger, DeCarlo Raspberry, MaryKate Brouillet, Tina Marie DeSimone, Sofina Davis, Jonah Hale, Ella Boodin, Hannah Dash, Owen Landle, Jackson Smith, Amanda Jillian Kaplan. Choreographer: Mark Minnick. Musical Direction and Orchestrations: Douglas Lawler. Scenic Designer: David A. Hopkins. Costume Designer: Lawrence B. Munsey. Lighting Designer: Lynn Joslin. Sound Designer: Mark Smedley. Produced bhy Toby’s Dinner Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.