Miracle on 34th Street
Also see John's review of Beethoven, As I Knew Him
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.