Regional Reviews: Phoenix
In a season chock-full of musical stage adaptations of holiday stories, Arizona Broadway Theatre's production of this Christmas classic features a winning cast and fun creative elements, making for a bright and delightful holiday outing. However, with a lackluster score that adds nothing to the plot and an ending that isn't as good as the film's, it doesn't quite measure up to the high amount of charm or the emotionally moving experience of the movie.
The plot of the musical is a fairly straightforward retread of the film and focuses on the cynical pair of single mother Doris Walker and her daughter Susan. Doris is the director of events at Macy's department store and has imparted her lack of trust and beliefs onto her daughter Susan, including the fact that Santa Claus is just a man that Doris hires for $2 an hour, not someone to believe in. Their new next-door neighbor Fred Gaily befriends the realist and no-nonsense Susan, but when Doris ends up hiring a man who calls himself Kris Kringle to portray Santa, both Fred and Kris make Susan start to change her mind and believe in Santa Claus. Can Fred and Kris melt the ice around Doris' heart as well and get her to start to believe?
Willson's book is full of warmth, and that has a lot to do with the fact that it's a fairly faithful adaptation of the Oscar winning film script by Valentine Davies and George Seaton. Unfortunately, the ending lacks the film's emotional focus and the score never rises to the high standards of Willson's The Music Man, though a number in act two, "She Hadda Go Back," is reminiscent of the fast-paced tunes from that hit show. The upbeat group number "Here's Love" is fine, though when you consider that the musical was originally called Here's Love and this song should have been the big, rousing, title song, it does make you scratch your head. Also, the only song that will stick with you is one you already know, and one that Willson wrote many years before this show premiered, the standard holiday classic "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas."
Director James Rio does a very good job in adding many original bits of warmth, charm and humor that help detract somewhat from the weak score. He also gets realistic performances from his cast that help add some emotion and layers to the mainly two-dimensional characters and keeps the pace of the piece brisk.
In a perfectly poised and polished performance, Emily Grace Anton, who alternates in the part with Ava Newton, is excellent as Susan. She exhibits a beautifully natural line delivery and a no-nonsense attitude that easily gets across the cynicism and firm sense of reality in this young girl. Melissa Mitchell is quite good as her mother Doris. Mitchell exhibits the appropriate level of mistrust and doubt in those she meets and her bright singing voice shines on her songs. As Fred, Cody Gerszewski is upbeat and full of charm and honesty and, like Mitchell, his vocals are excellent. From the likable character Gerszewski creates, it's easy to see why Susan comes to trust Fred so quickly. As Kris Kringle, MJJ Cashman has the right look, though he could be a bit jollier. In smaller parts, Andy Meyers, Tony Blosser, Fred Gerle, Jay Roberts, Renée Kathleen Koher and Tim Shawver add some fun comical moments and create characters that, while humorous, are never too broad, which helps add some levity to the piece.
Choreography Heather Adams delivers some upbeat and imaginative moments for both the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade section that opens the show and a dream sequence in the second act. Kara Thomson's effective scenic design features several large moving elements that work well to establish the many locations in the show, and they look great set against Bret Reese's lush lighting. Savana Leveille's costumes are period appropriate and full of colorful touches. Music director Joshua Condon delivers a rich, warm sound from both the large cast and orchestra.
While the musical adaptation of Miracle on 34th Street doesn't add anything new to the classic film, and the score and ending are actually a slight detriment, the plot, characters and themes are still heartwarming and, with a cast and direction that help offset some of the show's shortcomings, Arizona Broadway Theatre's production still results in a feel-good charmer of a show.
Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical, through December 29th, 2018, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org or by calling 623-776-8400.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson