“Miracle on 34th Street” is set in the distant era when department stores were a big deal, and that sort of retail nostalgia at least partly accounts for this musical working so well as a holiday attraction at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Its greatest appeal, of course, is that it celebrates Santa Claus, whose popularity can withstand any changes in the consumer economy.
Derived from a beloved Hollywood film, this musical version has a book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Best known for the Broadway musical “The Music Man,” he brought the same kind of brassy enthusiasm to this wholesome holiday material.
The Toby’s production is a family-friendly show that delivers enough 1930s-vintage period trappings to transport us to New York's flagship Macy’s department store; and it has an actor embodying a department store Santa who is right out of central casting in a happy sense. Directed by Shawn Kettering and choreographed by Mark Minnick, this staging occasionally has scenes in which the holiday cheer seems mechanical rather than heartfelt; fortunately, it has other scenes in which the voices, dancing and overall staging happily deliver the Christmas spirit.
A sign that we’re basically in for a satisfying show arrives in the opening minutes with the confident stage presence and singing of Heather Marie Beck as Doris Walker, the employee whose duties include working on the logistical challenge known as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Doris is a dedicated employee, but not exactly a bundle of good cheer in her private life. Leave it to her adorable young daughter, Susan (Lilianna Robinson at the reviewed performance), to help bring out the more tender emotions in this seemingly joyless workaholic. Beck and Robinson duet nicely in “Arm in Arm,” and Beck demonstrates her musical theater smarts in “You Don’t Know.”
Doris and Susan establish an emotional connection with Fred Gaily, a lawyer who happens to be a nice guy - hey, it’s a holiday show, so humanity is shown at its finest. As Fred, Jeffrey Shankle is a steady presence here. Shankle has a fine solo number, “Look, Little Girl,” and he also does well in duet and ensemble numbers. He’s among the numerous cast members who have appeared on this stage many times over the years, and thus give the audience reason to feel secure that the holiday will be observed without any serious glitches.
Not to take anything away from the importance of the above-mentioned characters in the story, but the star attraction is an enigmatic fellow named Kris Kringle, who is hired on short notice to play Santa in the Macy’s toy department. Is Kris Kringle really Santa Claus or is he a delusional if well-intentioned guy who thinks he’s Santa? There will be no spoilers here, but it’s safe to say that the question will be answered in a New York court case that could only occur, well, in a musical like this one.
As Kris Kringle, longtime Toby’s performer Robert Biedermann has the friendly face, long white beard and, er, full figure to make for a very convincing Santa Claus. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and this is the fellow. Biedermann is totally convincing whether sitting on a department store throne, having a heart-to-heart talk with kid characters or gliding across the stage in a sleigh. Although Biedermann does not have a particularly reliable singing voice, he’s an engaging comic actor and thus gets through his songs in an endearing way.
Others in the large cast look period-appropriate in the costumes designed by Lawrence B. Munsey; and they generally move smoothly around the department store-evocative scenery by David A. Hopkins.
Musical director Douglas Lawler ensures that Meredith Willson’s zippy score is consistently festive here, although the band’s happy sounds were made a little less so by a low-level buzz in the sound system at the reviewed performance. Such issues are not unusual early in the run of a show. Likewise, the show as a whole seems likely to generate even more good cheer as it moves deeper into December.
“Miracle on 34th Street" runs through Jan. 7 at Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to tobysdinnertheatre.com