Stages Gifts Us a Trip Back in Time With Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play

Kevin Cooney and Jackera Davis in Stages' production of Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play.
Kevin Cooney and Jackera Davis in Stages' production of Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
In the interest of full disclosure, and to get this out of the way, I’ve never seen Miracle on 34th Street. Luckily, Stages Repertory Theatre has my back with their latest holiday-themed production, Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play.

Adapted from the 1947 Lux Radio broadcast by Lance Arthur Smith, with original songs and arrangements by Jon Lorenz, Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play takes us back in time and makes us the studio audience for a Christmas classic. In said Christmas classic, an overly realistic and reasonable Macy’s employee, Doris Walker, in need of a Santa Claus for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, happens upon a man who seems too good to be true.

Going by the name Kris Kringle, he claims he is as old as his tongue and little bit older than his teeth (kudos to Jonathan Swift for the line); he lists eight reindeer as his next of kin (or he would have if the line was long enough); and he’s thoroughly disillusioned by the commercialization of Christmas. He’s hired, and he quickly becomes a hit among customers by doing the unthinkable – being a Macy’s-employed Santa Claus who recommends other stores, including rival Gimbels. But his continued insistence that he really is Santa Claus leads to an arrest, and then a court case to determine his mental health and answer the question once and for all: Is it possible that he really is Santa Claus?

In deft hands, Director Mitchell Greco holds an iconic story that holds a place in the hearts of millions, if not necessarily me. But even without the sense memory that comes along from watching stories like this when you’re young, the nostalgia is present. The story is saccharine, yes, but the production is breezy and pleasant, and a wonderful addition to this season’s slate of holiday shows. A big reason for this, is the cast.

Kendrick Mitchell’s Grady Williams gets a little lost among the personalities in the WSRT studio, but his Fred Gailey has a strong leading-man aura and a charming voice, particularly in the jaunty “Don’t Let Us Down.” Courtney Markowitz’s Cordelia Ragsdale, who in turn plays Doris Walker, is a preening, flirty presence in the studio, one that is juxtaposed quite nicely with her once bitten, twice shy Doris. In the span of a scene, Markowitz easily goes from sultry to somber for two very different renditions of “Deck the Halls” (each aptly titled: “Jazzy Halls” and “Melancholy Halls”). Mitchell and Markowitz’s characters within the radio play are a bit one note, but still root-worthy, and it’s in no small part due to their chemistry with each other (exemplified during “A Little Make Believe”) and with Jackera Davis and Kevin Cooney.

Little Gracie DeMarco, played by Jackera Davis, voices the precocious Susan Walker in the radio play. Davis is absolutely delightful, bright-eyed and sweet, and the only disappointing thing is that we are only treated to one solo, “I Believe in You,” which is an absolutely knock-out number. Kevin Cooney’s Kristofer Von Lisberg voices the man himself, Kris Kringle. Cooney is warm and comforting, like a mug of hot chocolate, with a twinkly-eyed sincerity that yes, makes you believe he’s exactly who he says he is.

The cast is rounded out with the workhorses of this production: Kenneth Simmons, Carolyn Johnson, and Ben Miller. Simmons plays the goofy radio personality Wallace Ainsley, who in turn plays Alfred, an anxious department store elf with a host of complexes, and the nasally, high-strung “psychologist,” Mr. Sawyer. Carolyn Johnson’s Olivia Glatt is the best at showing petty annoyance in the studio, and great at tackling a host of characters, including a cute little boy, Mortimer, and his weary mother; Mr. Sawyer’s lispy secretary, and the judge’s son, Tommy, to name a few. Johnson also dons quite the sassy, sexy voice for “A Little Case of Christmas.”

Miller plays WSRT radio announcer and Foley artist, Alex Milado, along with Macy’s English public relations man, Mr. Shellhammer; Mr. Macy himself; and the worried Judge Harper – all while playing the piano. But let’s not lie. The best part of radio plays like this is watching a Foley artist at work, and this show doesn’t disappoint. It should be noted, however, that though Miller does a good chunk of the work, everyone chips in.

Now is also a good time to mention Sound Designer Joel Burkholder and Musical Director Steven Jones, who are very much responsible for the successful sonic landscape found here. Jones in particular has done excellent work overseeing the music in this production, as a song or simply a melody runs through just about every minute of the production, from the musical numbers themselves, to the interludes and the jingles, many showing off the harmonies from the quintet of Mitchell, Markowitz, Simmons, and Johnson. (The dueling ads between Gimbels and Macy’s are a personal favorite, as are the carol medleys.)

The creative team’s success continues with the terrific stage design. To walk into the theater is to walk back in time to 1947 and right into Scenic Designer Kimberly Powers’ WSRT studio, with properties design by Jodi Bobrovsky and a big assist from Clair Hummel’s costume design. There’s no doubt Christmas has hit the WSRT studio – poinsettia, candy canes, gifts, stockings, green and red paper chains, and two – count ‘em, two – Christmas trees. Two windows also reveal the New York City setting, with snow gently falling outside. The stage is tiered, with a trio of mikes set up for the performers on the slightly lower level and a Foley table at the center back on the higher level, making sure we can peep all the sound effects action.

The brightly lit studio, by Lighting Designer Weston Wilkerson, is appropriately cheery, but Wilkerson’s stand-out contribution is the unexpected spotlight on Miller’s Mr. Macy while he’s on the stand (which is funny and will not be spoiled here).

Fun fact: Despite being the quintessential Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street was released in the summer, technically opening in May but not getting its New York premiere until the least Christmassy day of the year, June 4, 1947. The temperature was a warm 76 degrees outside. All that to say that for the next few weeks, with Texas weather being what it is, you may have the chance to experience Miracle on 34th Street not only in a new way (as a radio play), but in an old way, just like audiences did at that New York premiere. And you should.

Performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Through December 15. For more information, call 713-527-0123 or visit $25 to $77.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.