The Gospel story has never been a popular attraction on the stage, except for the medieval pageant The Massacre of the Innocents, a huge hit for its time with its dark theme of infanticide. But this antique doesn't exactly suit our modern holiday celebration. Thus, there are only two secular Christmas classics: Dickens' immortal A Christmas Carol and Valentine Davies' Miracle on 34th Street. Neither of them has lost its charm or message. Yes, I realize there are lots of other Christmas shows, but none are certifiable classics.
One hundred years or so after Dickens' tale (1843), Davies' Miracle was written expressly for the screen (1947). Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th-Century Fox, wanted a Christmas movie, but didn't want it released during the holidays because he said more people go the theater in the summer. So the advertising played down the Santa Claus theme and pumped up the romance. The ruse worked better than anyone at Fox could anticipate. Nominated for Best Picture, it won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Edmund Gwenn's bubbly Santa), Best Original Story (Davies), and Best Screenplay (director/writer George Seaton). It was an instant hit. The success did wonders for Macy's flagship department store in New York City. The publicity and location filming were incalculably profitable.
The movie holds up beautifully today, thanks to the subtly natural performances of Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara as doubting workaholic mother Doris, and a preternaturally gorgeous Natalie Wood as rational young daughter Susan. I suspect the film will always work its magic.
The story is sweet and clever. What was once called faith has been transposed into the power of imagination, which works well for a tale about Kris Kringle. Religion has been subsumed under the hypnotic hold of Santa. But the verities of the season are obvious: be kind, wishes don't always come true, don't make Christmas such a commodity, have faith, stay young at heart.
Since its premiere, the movie's been shown on television for ages, so I don't think a synopsis is needed. But quickly: Living at the zoo where he pals with the reindeer, Kris gets a job as Santa Claus at Macy's Toyland. He announces to one and all that he is Santa. Recently released from an institution, his good will and jolly cheer slowly change the naysayers for the better. The story climaxes in a court trial, where the government actually comes to his aid. The post office delivers all letters from the children addressed to the North Pole to the courthouse; the U.S. government has certified his existence. Doris and the lawyer fall in love, and Susan gets her Christmas wish: a house with a father.
Peter Troxell and Rita Wadsworth, two co-founders of Mountain Community Theater in Ben Lomond, California, wrote this adaptation in 1982 for their new company's holiday season. It was a big hit for them for many years until Fox began a cease-and-desist order. Since the writers based their play upon Davies' novelization of his own original story, lengthy legal maneuvering ensued, but eventually the company was allowed to publish, produce, and farm out their holiday hit.
This is the version that A.D. Players uses for their holiday show.
Bright and shiny in Liz Freese's impressionistic design of window frames and geometric background that defines a Manhattan skyline, there's still a problem with the set changes. The play's too cinematic for prolonged waiting as pieces are lowered, chairs arranged, actors put in place. Moments in the theater can seem like minutes when a scene change isn't instantaneous. Movies instantly cut, theater must wait. The drama goes bumpy when the timing's off. The fantasy's exposed.
Director Philip Hays does wonders with some spry staging choices, but the story's whimsy emerges a bit leaden and heavy-handed. For a tale all about imagination, there's not much in evidence. Granted, the script is no help, as certain scenes repeat exposition and characterization is tossed aside. But Shawn St. John's sound design (hot-jazz '40s musical arrangements and subtle sound effects), and Danielle Hodgins' costume design (where did she find all those incredible period saddle shoes and two-tone pumps?) work their own theatrical wonders.
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The cast is uniformly good, but all somewhat rote. They certainly have fun chewing any scenery within reach, especially Luis Galindo, as exasperated political consultant Halloran, who channels all those indelible exasperated characters from any Frank Capra movie. In her satin blouses and plaid skirts, Courtney Lomelo, as Doris, looks, I swear, like young Lauren Bacall, which is a good thing. She moves smoothly through Doris' passage from ultra-rational free-thinker to true believer. Patricia Duran, as prosecuting attorney Mara, employs a Brooklyn accent not heard since Thelma Ritter, and has a great time playing the villain. Marty Blair sputters comically as disbelieving company psych Sawyer; and Kedrick Brown, as Doris' love-to-be Fred, is homey and warm. 4th-grader Mackenzie West is a fine Susan, but her conversion from doubter to childlike rapture is hasty and undramatized. It's not her fault, blame the writers. And how good it is to see Marion Arthur Kirby back on stage. Here he's stuffy entrepreneur Bloomingdale and sympathetic zookeeper Duncan. For 35 years, he was a stalwart A.D. Players company member, and his presence has been sorely missed. Welcome back.
Rutherford Cravens was born to play Santa Claus. With his definitive line readings, controlled bluster, and natural stage presence, he could be exceptional in the role. But he lacks the guilelessness of both Davies' original and Gwenn's effervescence. He's too grumpy and cranky. There's no twinkle to him, no naive righteousness. He needs to mellow. We want to believe in him, really we do.
A.D.'s production is still a fine one for the kiddies, and its message of belief in things-we-can-not-see will not be lost on parents this time of year. The show just needs a touch more Santa magic for this hard heart to be softened.
Miracle on 34th Street continues through December 22 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the George Theater, 5420 Westheimer. For information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $25-$75.