Laurel Mill Playhouse

Joseph Mariano, as Fred Gayley, Kathy Wenerick-Bell, as Doris Walker, and Grace La Count, as Susan Walker, in a scene from Laurel Mill Playhouse's production of "Miracle on 34th Street." (Photo by Patti Restivo, Patuxent Publishing / December 8, 2011)

Santa's coming to Main Street on a crucial mission to defend his honor in Laurel Mill Playhouse's rendition of the American classic, "Miracle On 34th Street," adapted to the stage by Mountain Community Theater and based on a novel by Valentine Davies.

George Seaton's film version starred a very young Natalie Wood and won an Academy Award for Edmund Gwenn in his supporting role as Kris Kringle. "Miracle on 34th Street" is considered by many to be one of the best films of 1947.

Perennial fans will notice a few differences in the details of the play, but the story line remains as fresh as the enthusiasm and warmth spun here by director Michael Hartsfield and his talented cast and crew.

A timeless Christmas tale set in New York City, the script adapts beautifully to Laurel Mill Playhouse's community theater style, although not as easily to its small stage. Hartsfield's savvy staging manages to accommodate a large cast of varied ages and experience levels as Kim Delk's costumes add visual authenticity and sparkle.


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The story begins as Dr. Greenwald, played quite well as a female by Shirley Greenwald, reluctantly discharges a kindly old gentleman from the Maplewood Home – which requires its residents to be mentally sound – because he insists he's Kris Kringle, a.k.a. Santa Claus.

When the homeless Kris, played by Mike Galizia, rebukes Tim Wolf playing a drunk in a Santa suit who is about to appear in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, Macy's event manager Doris Walker and her assistant Mrs. Shellhammer, played by Kathy Wenerick-Bell and Anne Hull of Laurel, hire Kris as his replacement.

As the Macy's Santa, Kris quickly turns New York City upside down, disregarding store rules and generally ignoring the edicts of his employers to foster the Christmas spirit, making some people wonder if he could actually be the real Santa.

Doris, a cynical divorcee, tells her young daughter Susan, played by Grace La Count, what she believes – that Santa Claus is a myth and that Kris is just a nice old man. Meanwhile, Kris conspires with their close friend and neighbor Fred Gayley, played by Joseph Mariano, to rescue Susan's imagination and Doris's heart.

Ed Higgins is wildly funny as the unredeemable villain, Mr. Sawyer, a personnel counselor who underhandedly shanghais Kris to Bellevue Hospital. Fred, a lawyer, demands a sanity hearing in an attempt to free Kris from the asylum. As the court examines whether Kris is Santa Claus, the real defendant at the trial becomes childhood innocence.

Kendra Maurer, as the prosecuting attorney Mrs. Mara, and Wolf as Judge Harper command the stage as the fate of Santa unfolds.

Occasional statements about homelessness, commercialism, philosophy, politics and religion are far less obvious than the many heartwarming highlights.

One such enchanted moment is the elves' theater dance scene with Santa in the first act, nicely choreographed by Laurel resident Julie Rogers. Sharon Gilbertz, Amanda Smith, Amy Vecheck, Nicole Woody of Laurel, and Kayleen Yermal are lovely as Santa's loyal sidekicks.

Consistently, uncannily believable as the eccentric head elf, Galizia balances jolly deliveries of "ho ho ho" and humming "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" with moments of perplexity and melancholy.

And the deep chemistry created by La Count, Wenerick-Bell and Mariano as Susan, Doris, and Fred, is thoroughly engaging.

All of the supporting actors also deliver genuine performances. The young children – Katie Marina Graham Estep, Deborah Hokanson, Lillie Jewell-Dean, Grace La Count, Sophia Riazi-Sekowski and Shaelyn Yermal – are naturally adorable.

In other supporting roles, Craig Allen and Grant Myers, both of Laurel, Derek A. Cooper, Sarah Criscuolo, Morgan Delk, Henry Green, Stacy Hokanson, Malcolm Graham Humes, Ashley Kelley and Raquel McRae smoothly navigate the inevitable opening night bumps, bringing their own charm to the ensemble.

A bit of uneven acting detracts nothing from this production's beauty. What shouts out is the vibrant Christmas spirit of a cast sharing a wonderful experience.

Laurel Mill Playhouse's "Miracle on 34th Street" continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Dec. 18, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Dec. 11 and 18, at 508 Main St. General admission is $13. Students, 18 and younger; and seniors, 65 and older, pay $10. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.