Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Radio Play
To joggle memories, the familiar story puts squarely on the table the age-old question, "Is Santa Claus real or not?" Siding on the negative side of the question is a Macy's manager, Doris Walker, a single, tell-only-the-truth mom of a young daughter named Susan, who dutifully recites her mom's convictions that there is definitely no silly St. Nick. A nearby, similarly single lawyer, Fred Gailey, with a growing interest toward the attractive Doris, sets out to bring back some innocence and December wonder into Susan's eyes by introducing her to Macy's Santa. That this particular department store Santa, now living in a New Jersey retirement home, emphatically claims to be not only Kris Kringle but originally from the North Pole ("as old as my tongue but older than my teeth") with next of kin being Vixen, Blitzen, and Rudolph raises more than just a few eyebrows. That he also begins sending parental customers to the hated competitor Gimbels when Macy's does not have a child's requested toy sets off more red flagsuntil Mr. Macy himself is inundated with letters and telegrams from thankful customers who now believe Macy's is the best place in the world. A grateful Macy cannot quieten his dubious in-house psychiatrist, who sets out on a determined mission to send this Santa to Bellevue Hospital, the infamous mental institute. What ensues is a conflagration of hilarious and ultimately heart-warming events that must be seen (or in this case, heard) to be believed, as a little girl, her mother, and even Mr. Macy all come to have faith that defies common sense.
With the stage set authentically in live radio fashion (stools for actors, sound effects corner, big mikes along the front, and of course, "Applause" signs that periodically light up), actors arrive at New York City's WBFR on Christmas Eve, 1948, bundled in winter-ready, late '40s attire, kibitzing as they wait for the countdown. Mary Melnick is a highly fashioned Broadway star, and Janet Davies arrives with an air to take on the role of Doris Walker, a character described rather accurately as "in cast iron, still a little hard to penetrate." Ms. Melnick moves forward to the mike with an air of sophistication that fits both her star and her character in the play within our play. As Doris begins to soften her hard exterior and stubborn beliefs about what is real and what is not, Ms. Melnick is skillfully believable in the transformation.
Playing Doris' daughter Susan is Claire Lentz, who is the 1940s, well-known child movie star Shirley O'Brien. The similarities with the young Shirley we all associate with old movies are huge in her long, curly locks; big, toothy smile; pleasing perkiness; and sparkling-eye looks that could melt any adult's heart. Ms. Lentz brings an acting maturity well beyond her years along with a face of wonder and amazement that makes her Susan a highlight every time she steps up to the mike.
Kevin Kirby too is a Broadway star, James Douglas, called into this one-evening performance on national radio, and he takes on the part of the lawyer and neighbor Fred Gailey. Debonair in a mid-life sort of way, Mr. Kirby convincingly plays both a clever attorney who figures out how to prove Kris is really St. Nick and a soft-spoken guy who is hopelessly in love with a mom and her cute daughter.
As is often true, any character in a play who takes on multiple, minor parts can often come close to stealing the entire show, and that is certainly true in this radio-simulated production. Bob Visini is Milton Keighley, who not only MCs the evening's broadcast in deep, impressive tones but also steps in, among other roles, as the surprisingly jovial Mr. Macy and as a judge who is more than a bit nervous about his upcoming re-election and what will happen if he declares there is no Santa Claus. Karen DeHart's Libby Collins, a regular WBFR cast member, comes to the mike time and again in a range of characters of both sexes and all ages: several mothers of various dialects in Macy's whose kids are seeing Santa; a drunk and hiccupping Mrs. Shellhammer, who has had one too-many martinis; the meek and Santa-believing Macy employee Alfred; and a little boy Thomas who is willing to say under court oath that his prosecuting dad has told him that there really is a Santa. Ms. DeHart excels in these and many more character undertakings.
But the icing on the cake has to be the performance of Gregg Zigler, who, as another WBFR regular, the bald and visually expressive Baxter Greenstreet, brings to the radio audience a whole slew of oddball characters that really need to be seen to be fully appreciated. While his vocals range from high, squeaky pitches of a snoopy psychiatrist to the fastidious airs of a Macy's clerk a bit too eager to please his higher-ups to the New Jersey, slimy accent of a dubious politician, the facial antics that we as live audience get to see as he embodies these and at least a dozen more personages are priceless.
Since this is a live radio show, Patrick DeRosa's role as Charlie Maxwell, the studio stage manager, is crucial, as he must step in at the last minute to become the night's sound engineer (ably assisted of course by the Tabard's sound designer John DiLoreto). Watching Mr. DeRosa get just the right audibles by tearing papers to shreds, dropping heavy bags, using a real turntable with vinyl records to produce a passing train or heavy city traffic, or knocking and slamming a simulated door in exactly the right moment needed is a show unto itself.
But what about the main man himself, Kris Kringle? WBFR studio sound engineer Buddy Schlubman (Nicolae Muntean) finds himself reluctantly forced into the role of the jolly, bearded star of the night when bad weather has delayed the real actor. Fortunately for the live audience, Mr. Muntean not only looks the part with his own white beard and rotund body, he is anyone's embodiment of what the real St. Nick might be likehumble, friendly, generous to a fault, and always believing in the good of all (except when the snippy Macy's psychiatrist just goes too far in his quest to institutionalize Kris).
While just listening to this production would probably be a fun evening, watching the production as it might have looked on a 1948 radio stage is a hoot. Director Jay Manley, costume designer Melissa Sanchez, and lighting designer Nick Nichols have done everything possible to give the Tabard stage that radio studio look and feel, and the cast ensures that the well-known Miracle on 34th Street takes on a fresh but still-familiar feel any audience will appreciate.
Miracle on 34th Street continues through December 18, 2015, at The Tabard Theatre Company at the Theatre on San Pedro Square, 29 N. San Pedro Street, San Jose. Tickets are available at tabardtheatre.org.