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Chicago by John Olson

Miracle on 34th Street
Porchlight Music Theatre

Also see John's review of Beethoven, As I Knew Him

Miracle on 34th Street
Jim Sherman, Laney Kraus-Taddeo
Before the performance, Porchlight Artistic Director Walter Stearns told the audience the company hopes to make this show their annual holiday tradition. While the film on which this stage show is based is deservedly a classic and while there is much to be admired in this production, I hope that Porchlight doesn't make it a perennial. The property is just not worthy of filling that role for this particular company. As it says on the top of this page, Porchlight is a musical theater company, and this particular property is not a musical. They don't claim that it is—the program lists it as simply "A play from the novel by Valentine Davies," and the news release calls it "the live version of the holiday film," much as the recent Dirty Dancing billed itself as "the classic story on stage." Porchlight has added some 11 holiday songs, including traditional carols as well as hits of the 1940s period in which the story is set, sung with skill by the company and danced to some snappy choreography by Annie Hackett. They're not integrated into the story, for the most part (though "Here Comes Santa Claus" during the opening scene of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade and the closing number "Home for the Holidays" relate to their contexts), and though no one ever said this was to be a musical, you can't help wanting the songs to make the show soar, especially from a company that has done so well bringing important and sometimes little-performed musicals to their stage.

If it seems unfair to place such specific expectations on Porchlight, I think it's fair to say this piece (adapted by Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder, Will Severin and John Vreeke) would seem a little wooden anywhere. To my recollection, it's completely faithful to the screenplay of the 1947 film with Maureen O'Hara and Natalie Wood, but while it's fun to revisit the clever premise and likable characters, the pace seems a bit sluggish without the fluidity of film editing between the familiar scenes or without being significantly rethought for the stage.

Ian Zywica's set is cool enough. It's a large archway of classic columns that suggests the interior of Macy's flagship department store in New York and works well as the interior of the vintage Manhattan apartment of Macy's event manager Doris Walker. It's supplemented by video projections of post-World War II New York designed by Liviu Pasare. Jana Anderson's period costumes include a most handsome suit for Santa that seems worthy for the real deal St. Nick that Kris Kringle claims to be. No complaints about the cast, either. Jim Sherman makes a warm and wise, yet remarkably unsentimental Kris Kringle. Christa Buck and Karl Hamilton fill in for Maureen O'Hara and John Payne quite nicely (though we don't get to hear their terrific singing voices until the very end of the show). Laney Kraus-Taddeo is a doll as Doris' daughter Susan, the prematurely mature pre-teen brought up to be all-too realistic by her jaded businesswoman mother. The only member of the film cast we really miss is Thelma Ritter, who launched her film career as the mom who Santa sends to Gimbel's, but I'm not going to blame anyone for not being Thelma Ritter, especially not the likable Rebecca Chicoine who also plays the head of the senior home where Kris lives.

We can give Stearns and Porchlight credit for trying a different type of experience. A child audience member is recruited to participate in an improvised section of the scene in which Kris Kringle first sits as Macy's Santa, and the kids were also able to pose with Sherman as St. Nick after curtain calls. We can acknowledge that many producers and companies have searched in vain for the perfect holiday musical. Porchlight did the Harnick-Raposo adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life for two years and may have been wise to walk away from it, given the competition of two separate non-musical stagings of the story in the neighborhood this year. But don't stop believing, Porchlight. The perfect Christmas musical is out there and you're just the ones to do it.

Miracle on 34th Street will be performed through January 3, 2010 at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets may be purchased through the box office, by phone at 773-327-5252 or online at www.ticketmaster.com.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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