Toby's delivers a holiday 'Miracle' in festive performance

The Baltimore Sun

Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s current production of “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical,” does well by its namesake — brightening the holiday season with a show that approaches miraculous in its energy and spirit.

Based on the 1947 movie of the same name, this show was originally titled “Here’s Love” when adapted with music and lyrics by composer Meredith Willson. Retired after a brief run on Broadway in 1963, the musical reappeared in recent years as “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical” as a nostalgic family-oriented holiday show with a few bright tunes, most memorably “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.

Toby’s first “Miracle” production in 2014 proved delightful seasonal fare, and is doubly so in this encore version. Here the performances are lovingly polished and enhanced by Shawn Kettering’s skilled direction, Douglas Lawler’s expert musical direction and Mark Minnick’s imaginative choreography.

The talented cast and creative staff elevate the score and story — which promotes the existence of Santa Claus — into ideal holiday musical entertainment, complete with a glistening evocation of New York at Christmas, created by scenic designer David A. Hopkins.

Nostalgia casts a warm glow over Minnick’s recreation of Macy’s annual Thanksgiving parade — a cherished tradition captured by a choreographed toy ballet of dolls and marching toy soldiers, drum majors and ballerinas plus, of course, balloons. Clusters of parade watchers are gathered together with Toby’s intimate in-the-round audience.

The story centers on a department store Santa hired by executive Doris Walker, an independent, pragmatic single mother who has taught her precocious daughter Susan to believe only in what is logical. Carefree next door neighbor Fred Gaily invites Susan to Macy’s parade where she meets the jovial hired Santa, who spreads the Christmas spirit while identifying himself as Kris Kringle.

Good ol’ Kris changes the lives of Doris and Susan for the better, but runs into legal difficulty when forced to try to prove his competence, and ultimately his identity.

In today’s social climate, there’s a bit of sexism reflected in the show’s dated lyrics — including “Look, Little Girl” sung by Fred to career woman Doris and “She Hadda Go Back” describing Doris’ inept shopping routine. The same problem arises in some of the dialogue.

Nevertheless, a lovely Christmas gift is presented in lead character Kris Kringle, perfectly captured by Robert Biedermann, a 30-year veteran of Toby’s productions. Biedermann displays song and dance-talents plus charm enough to touch hearts and brighten spirits.

Reprising her 2014 role as independent, career woman Doris Walker, Heather Marie Beck is highly skilled in scenes relating to daughter Susan, suitor Fred Gaily and Macy executives and staff. Beck does full vocal justice to every musical number, most notably in heartfelt renditions of “You Don’t Know” and “Love, Come Take Me Again.”

Also reprising his 2014 role as fun-loving former Marine Fred is Toby’s leading song and dance man, Jeffrey Shankle. Here Shankle presents yet another dynamic performance, investing each of his songs with substance and charm. This is best illustrated in “My Wish,” a flawless duet with Beck’s Doris, and in the powerful solo of “Look, Little Girl” that places the lyrics of the song firmly in the remote post-World War II era.

Playing young Susan Walker on press night was Lisbon Elementary School fourth-grader Lilianna Robinson, who alternates with Camden Lippert in the role. Lilianna, who is also a member of the Toby’s Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, delivered a heart-warming performance that garnered large applause.

Reliable Toby’s favorite David Bosley Reynolds delivers in two roles — first as the New York governor, using his fine baritone in a brief solo with the chorus that opens the show on a powerful note; then in act two as the largely silent, stern New York presiding judge who is tasked with determining Kris Kringle’s mental stability. Combined, these roles offer another memorable performance for one of our favorite character actors.

Among other noteworthy performances are Toby’s leading man Russell Sunday, who is formidable as R. H. Macy; Tommy Malek in a strong high-energy debut as Macy’s beleaguered executive Marvin Shellhammer; and Santina Maiolatesi as Miss Crookshank. In fact, every member of the ensemble contributes to this show’s overall success.

“Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical” continues through Jan. 7 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road. Reservations are required. Call 410-730-8311 or go to tobysdinnertheatre.com.

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