Sunday, November 19, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 439, A Review: "Miracle on 34th Street" (The Arts at Angeloria's)

By James V. Ruocco

Is there really a Santa Claus?
Does he actually live in the North Pole?
Is his workshop filled with Christmas elves who make toys of every shape, color and size from handwritten wish lists from kids of all ages?
Does he really bring gifts to children worldwide on Christmas Eve with the aid of flying reindeer who pull his toy-filled sleigh through the air?
Well, that depends.

In "Miracle on 34th Street," the stage version of the original 1947 film that starred Edmund Gwenn and Maureen O' Hara, Kris Kringle believes he's Santa Claus.
He can grant any wish.
He can give you any gift.
He can speak any language.
His kindness knows no boundaries.

To the children visiting the welcoming Christmas grotto of Macy's Department Store, he's the one and only North Pole Santa and not an actor or salesperson commissioned via a weekly employee paycheck to pretend to be you-know-who.
Suspicion mounts.
Pretty much everyone thinks he's crazy.
A supreme court judge is hired to decide his sanity and real identity.
Christmas is threatened.
And the myth of the legendary figure of Santa Claus, also known as Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas and Père Noël, may be destroyed for good.

This being a "holiday-themed-show" with the word "miracle" in its title, "34th Street" eventually becomes a very happy place of smiles, gumdrops, candy canes, giddy wordplay and fantasy.
But is there a Santa Claus?
You bet there is!

Not one to disappoint, The Arts at Angeloria's turns a dark winter's night into a glorious snowy morning with its charming, hyperactive, very lengthy take on "Miracle on 34th Street." Produced by special arrangement with The Dramatic Publishing Company of Woodstock, Illinois, it comes to the stage with a book by Valentine Davies and a patchwork of handpicked "public domain" songs (not covered by copyright law) interspersed throughout the familiar, carefully modulated narrative.

It is also not to be confused with Meredith Wilson's 1963 Broadway musical "Here's Love," which, years later, was retitled "Miracle on 34th Street," for theatergoers and critics who felt "Here's Love" was the wrong title for a musical that questioned the existence of Santa Claus during the Christmas holidays.

With the accent on fun, amusement and over-the-top point of view and commitment, this decidedly different, musically remixed interpretation of "Miracle of 34th Street" glides and slides with holiday spirit, cheery wordplay and ample enough gallop and dash to turn even old Ebeneezer Scrooge into a fan of Kris Kringle.

It is sweet and corny.
It is brave and mischievous.
It is naive and twinkly.
Some of the songs work.
Some of them don't.
The first act is a tad too long.
Some of the plot seems dropped in as an afterthought.

Nonetheless, "Miracle on 34th Street" succeeds mainly on the strength of its two lead performers - Nicole Zolad as Doris Walker and Tony Lamberto as Kris Kringle - and an exceptional team of seasoned adult performers including Heidi Bass-Lamberto, Leann Crosby, Diana Bruenn, Nick Rapuano and Helen Malinka.

Staging "Miracle on 34th Street" director Lori Holm stays close to the source of the original 1947 movie for inspiration, going for full impact dramatically and comically, mixed with appropriate doses of melancholy, warmth, reflection and nostalgia. She is full of ideas, knowledge and enthusiasm and generates the right amount of holiday spirit without going overboard to make a point or drowning the theatergoer in "The Night Before Christmas" overkill. 
The script, as written by Valentine Davies, however, requires a number of scene changes that given the venue's small, intimate space, often interrupts the action as cast and crew work diligently - Santa's elves come to mind - to kick "Miracle on 34th Street" back into orbit, move the action forward and keep the adrenaline flowing. It's a task that Holm masters with engagement, carrying the audience along to the big finish, a place where miracles can and do happen and everyone lives happily ever after. Unfortunately, these shifts in time, place and scenery, though necessary to the production, add a half-hour to the already overlong proceedings.

Musically, this adaptation incorporates 13 "public domain" songs, handpicked by Holm to enliven the storytelling and spirit of the "Miracle on 34th Street" story. They are: "Here We Come a Caroling," "Wassail Song," "Brighten the Corner Where You Are," "Up on the Housetop," "Lucky Day," "Smile Will Go a Long, Long Way," "Jolly Old St. Nicholas, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," "Toyland," "Golden Days," "In the Bleak Midwinter," "Feather Your Nest" and "Deck the Halls."
Shoehorning musical numbers into an otherwise non-musical play, the songs themselves, all well intended, pop up every now and then like variety show interludes similar in style to that of "Your Hit Parade," "The Ed Sullivan Show," "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour" and "Your Show of Shows." They are genuine, playful and vintage-ready and serve their intended purpose. A few could be cut for time constraints, particularly in Act Two where they slow the action down or add nothing to the ongoing holiday story.

In the role of Doris Walker, an attractive, divorced woman who works as an event director for Macy's Department Store, Nicole Zolad, has found yet another pivotal role to showcase both her dramatic and musical talents. Here, dressed glamorously in Kim Turret's impeccably designed 1940s period wardrobe, Zolad is runway ready, delivering a genuine, captivating performance in sync with that of the 1947 characterization created by Maureen O'Hara and one that in this incarnation, she interprets with a natural spark, honesty and sureness that makes her every on-stage moment really matter. Her hardline stance on keeping her young daughter grounded in reality is played with real emotion and concern, particularly when defining the Christmas myth surrounding Santa Claus. Elsewhere, her vocal interpretation of the Victor Herbert/Glen MacDonough song classic "Toyland," is nothing short of brilliant, rich and expressive with just the right touch of warmth, lilt and arrangement.

Tony Lamberto's star turn as Kris Kringle is every bit as magical and delightful as Edmund Gwenn was in the 1947 film version of "Miracle on 34th Street." Championed by an onstage naturalness and charisma that goes a very long way in this Arts of Angeloria's production, Lamberto is the real deal. He's charming. He's personable. He's magical. He's imaginative. He's in such fine form from start to finish, it's no surprise to anyone onstage or in the audience that everything he does works so well. Nick Rapuano, as Fred Gayley, Doris Walker's next-door-neighbor who eventually becomes her romantic suitor plays his leading man role with evolving rapport, emotion and strongness. He and Zolad work wonderfully together, engaging in a sweet-and-sentimental romantic coupling that produces all the right sparks, smiles and happily-ever-after enchantment.

Leann Crosby as Attorney Mara, a New York lawyer with a penchant for conceding point after point, comes to "Miracle on 34th Street" with the comic finesse and gait of a variety show vaudevillian who can make anything funny through the employment of line delivery, funny faces, positioning and punch and pull gather and grab. Heidi Bass-Lamberto, as Halloran, a nosy, gossipy type whose comic style recalls that of Vivian Vance's Ethel Mertz on "I Love Lucy," impresses at every comic turn, knowing exactly how to get laugh after laugh (her "Sanny Claus" schtick is hysterical) the way it was intended to be shaped and performed in the sit-com television world of yesteryear.

Equally impressive is Helen Malinka as Shellhapper and Diana Bruenn as Sawyer. They too come to the proceedings with lots and lots of stage presence, personality and great comic flair and dramatic invention. They are both natural-born entertainers who have great fun with their individual characterizations, dialogue, one-liners and interaction with other members of the "Miracle on 34th Street" cast. Kuhlken Gorman is wonderfully animated as Doctor Pierce, but stumbling over his dialogue from time to time, flatlines his performance. Lilly Wood's Susan Walter is adorable enough, but she lacks the open-eyed wonder and child-like innocence associated with the role. As James, the son of Attorney Mara, Felix Allen, makes a strong impression, particularly when he takes the witness stand in Act II to tell everyone that his mother told him that "Santa Claus" is real. It's one of those "standout" moments that audiences know and love. 

"Miracle on 34th Street" is being staged at The Arts at Angeloria's (223 Meriden Waterbury Turnpike, Southington, CT), now through December 3, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 426-9690.

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