Toby's 'Miracle on 34th Street' captures holiday spirit
By By Mike Giuliano
Nov 27, 2013 | 6:35 AM
The sounds of the season are cheerfully asserting themselves at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, where "Miracle on 34th Street" brings Santa Claus to town.
Considering that this musical adaptation of the 1947 Hollywood movie concerns a Macy's department store Santa appearing in its annual Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, the Toby's booking opened in time for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Good timing also characterizes the acting and singing in this family-friendly local staging of a holiday-themed show. Thank goodness the performers are endearing in the Toby's production, because the Broadway show is musically mediocre.
Composer Meredith Willson scored a huge Broadway hit with "The Music Man" in 1957, and he also enjoyed success with another Broadway show, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," in 1960. When he adapted the movie "Miracle on 34th Street" into a Broadway musical titled "Here's Love" in 1963, the show was not received as well. Currently reviving "Here's Love" under the movie title "Miracle on 34th Street" is a seasonally smart move on the dinner theater's part.
Although the basic Christmas-themed story retains its appeal in Willson's musical adaptation, the music itself generally proves less than charming. Although the score contains such memorable tunes as "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and "Here's Love," some of the other songs tend to be short and choppy.
Also, there's a brassy quality that does not always serve the material well. Admittedly, that blustery sound is appropriate for Thanksgiving parade-aligned numbers, but other songs would benefit from a gentler sound.
It seems as if Willson is mining his own "The Music Man" score at times. You almost expect to have 76 trombones marching through the big Macy's parade. And the Midwestern parade band sensibility of "The Music Man" even has a geographic echo of sorts in the song "My State, My Kansas." Are we in Manhattan or the Midwest?
To his credit, the musical director of the Toby's production, Douglas Lawler, and his band deliver a straightforward and lively performance of Willson's largely unmemorable score. It's ultimately the sort of score that more or less holds your attention during the brief songs and then mercifully allows you to enjoy the sentimental story.
In terms of knowing the score, the Toby's production really scores where it counts most — an adorable Santa and equally cute kids. When a fellow giving his name as Kris Kringle is pressed into service at the last minute to replace an inebriated Santa in the Macy's parade, this fellow insists that he is the real Santa Claus.
This character was played in the 1947 movie by Edmund Gwenn, who won an Academy Award as best supporting actor. It's worth keeping Gwenn's image in mind, because he was, to put it bluntly, not an especially fat Santa. His Santa embodied goodness, but otherwise had a reasonably trim body.
This Toby's production is blessed to have an actor named Robert John Biedermann as Kris Kringle. This actor has the requisite beard and jolly personality, as well as a relatively slender physique that doubtless makes it easier to pull him in a sleigh.
The svelte Santa at Toby's easily negotiates such songs as "Here's Love" and "Pinecones and Hollyberries," and you're inclined to believe his claim that he's the real Santa.
"Miracle on 34th Street" has a large cast of department store employees, shoppers, civic officials, a balloon vendor, a Girl Scout and other New Yorkers, all of whom make for an agreeably crowded and festive urban stage. Add in some Christmas trees, stockings, old-fashioned street lamps and the outlined city skyline and you have all the trimmings for a holiday-immersive musical staging.
For all that Christmas season activity, the story manages to keep its focus on the relationship between Kris Kringle and a Macy's executive, Doris Walker (Heather Marie Beck), and Doris' young daughter, Susan (Ella Boodin at the reviewed performance, alternating with Sadie Herman). Doris is divorced and grumpy, while little Susan seems no happier. Kris has got his work cut out for him when it comes to dispensing good cheer.
Beck is completely confident with her acting and singing as Doris. When Beck sings such songs as "You Don't Know" and "Look, Little Girl," she makes the most of the score and underscores the emotional substance that lies beneath the show's seasonal tinsel. Boodin also gives an impressive performance, especially considering how much dialogue and singing this pint-sized role requires.
Others in the large cast also make a nice impression in a production whose director, Shawn Kettering, also plays several minor roles.
And mention also must be made of the youngest audience members attentively watching this show, because their fancy outfits and smiling faces enhance our sense that it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.