Meredith Willson’s rarely performed Miracle on 34th Street, The Musical is the holiday presentation at the recently founded Argyle Theatre in Babylon, Long Island. This colorful production is based on the famous Christmas film of the same name, first presented on Broadway in 1963 under the name of Here’s Love. Although it ran 334 performances, it has always been overshadowed by Willson’s masterpiece, The Music Man, which ran four years on Broadway and won six Tony Awards including Best Musical.
Evan Pappas has given the show a high-energy production with a cast which sings better than those on the original cast album. While this is a pleasant and entertaining show, the Argyle revival also demonstrates why this show is not presented more often: the wow factor is missing. And although Pappas’ production turns two of the songs into rousing production numbers, Willson’s score does not have any outstanding songs, aside from the 1950 “It’s Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Christmas” which is used as part of a three part harmony with the new song, “Pinecones and Holly Berries,” geting somewhat lost in the shuffle. The new production eliminates one extraneous song, “She Hadda Go Back,” but includes three numbers that never made it on to the cast album.
Willson’s book remains faithful to the Academy Award winning original story by Valentine Davies and screenplay by George Seaton Ifor the 1947 film while trimming a few of the extraneous subplots. No nonsense Promotional Director of Macy’s Doris Walker discovers that her Santa Claus is too drunk to appear on his float in the annual Thanksgiving Day parade. Just at that moment a chubby elder man with a luxurious white beard comes along and agrees to pinch hit for the indisposed actor. He is so convincing that Doris hires him to be the store’s Santa in its toy department.
Doris does not believe in myths, fables and fantasies and is bringing up her daughter Susan to feel the same way. Unfortunately, their new neighbor retired marine. Lt. Fred Gailey, as aspiring lawyer, is sweet on Doris and has taken to squiring Susan around Manhattan. When he takes her to visit Santa at the mother’s store, Susan tells the new Santa that she knows he is a fake, but he insists he really is Kris Kringle. They are witnesses when he tells several parents at what stores they can buy their children Christmas presents that are no longer available at Macy’s. This leads Shellenhammer, Doris’ assistant, to fire Mr. Kringle.
However, Mr. Macy is so pleased with the public’s reaction to the new policy that he wants the new Santa signed to a lifetime contract. When Doris and Shellenhammer examine Santa’s personnel card and discover that he has listed his name as “Kris Kringle” and his next of kin as Dancer, Prancer, etc., they arrange to have him tested by Ms. Sawyer, the store psychologist. She decides that he is a dangerous lunatic and calls the police. When Kringle insists that he really is Santa Claus, they haul him off to Bellevue Hospital for examination. Susan is disillusioned and Doris needs her Santa back. Fred’s burgeoning law career is given a boost when he is talked into taking Kringle’s case which will be heard by Judge Martin Group of the New York Supreme Court. Fred has the difficult task of proving that Kris Kringle is the real Santa, while the Judge has the problem of not disappointing the children of New York. With a couple of clever ploys, all is decided to almost everyone’s satisfaction.
Pappas’ cast plays their roles to the hilt; unfortunately, the characterizations are much thinner than in the film version and don’t give the actors much to develop. As the efficient, hard-boiled Doris, beautiful blonde Tiffan Borelli demonstrates a fine soprano and a focused character. Baritone Ira Kramer’s Fred Gailey adds much humor and comic business as the lovelorn lawyer who attempts to save Susan from a life without faith or mystery. Sadly as written, Willson’s book keeps Doris and Fred apart until the final curtain so that there is little chemistry between them. Alternating in the role of young Susan, Raquel Livia Sciacca melts from pragmatic child to one who can be awed by wonder.
In the joint role of Kris Kringle/Santa Claus, Tony Triano with a luxuriant white beard and a suitable avoirdupois is very convincing as the character all the others argue about. As the authoritative R.H. Macy, Christopher Carl puts one in mind of Ted Knight and Ed Asner. In smaller roles, J Ryan Carroll is a bit over the top as Doris’ assistant Marvin Shellhammer, while Nancy Evans captures the sourness of the store’s psychologist. Others in the ensemble who give able support are Kyle Yampiro as Judge Martin Group, Jamie Forbes as District Attorney Thomas Mara, and Tyler Pisani as the Judge’s eager secretary Tammany O’Halloran. In the rotating cast of children, Jacob Karp as Tommy Mara, Jr. (the D.A.’s son), Zach Stuart Atkinson as Harry who wants a toy fire engine that can no longer be found at Macy’s, and Christina May Gobes as the Dutch Hendrika who is thrilled that Santa understands her language show a great deal of stage presence.
Audrey Vuong’s clever stage settings make use of a huge background of lower Manhattan under which various set pieces are brought in. The lighting by John Salutz gets into the Christmas spirit by bathing the stage alternately in red and green lights in suitable scenes. Set in 1961, Matsy Stinson’s costumes are both attractive and period-appropriate. Musical director Jeff Cox leads the six piece orchestra in Willson’s bouncy rhythms. Carlos Dias, Jr.’s sound design is remarkable clear for so large a musical venue.
While Evan Pappas’s production of Miracle on 34th Street does not solve all of the problems inherent in the show as written by Meredith Willson, he has made it an entertaining Christmas stage show adapted from the classic film. With a top-notch cast, colorful sets and costumes, and a parcel of unfamiliar tunes, this is excellent family fun for young and old alike at this holiday season. Possibly in the future, a revised book will turn this into the show it should always have been.
Miracle on 34th Street, The Musical (through December 29, 2019)
The Argyle Theatre, 34 West Main Street, in Babylon, Long Island
For tickets, call 844-631-5483 or visit http://www.argyletheatre.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission