A miracle waiting to happen

Miracle on 34th Street - The Musical

 Wolverhampton Grand

***

IMAGINE being a child on a bright crisp Christmas morning. You open a present you have been waiting for, switch it on and . . . nothing; no one remembered the batteries and the shops are closed.

Miracle on 34th Street is a bit like that. Everything is there but somehow it just doesn’t seem to work.

You can’t blame the cast, they acted their socks off but they were hardly helped by poor sound quality and dreadful interference and feedback, particularly in the first act.

The three large stage blocks making up Macy’s store windows seemed to take ages to place in position for scene changes as did the yin and yang shaped blocks which made up Fred’s apartment.

The musical, which first opened in 1963 under the name Here’s Love, with book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson (best known for The Music Man) is based on the 20th Century Fox film from 1947, which is a quite a burden to carry.

The film won an Oscar for supporting actor for Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle as well as Oscars for best screenplay for director George Seaton and best original story for Valentine Davies. It also starred Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and an eight-year-old Natalie Wood.

More importantly, for any subsequent version, it became one of the best-loved Christmas films of all time, still popular today, 66 Christmases on. It was a piece of whimsy, for children the magic of Christmas in an age of innocence and for adults a sort of warm nostalgia of Christmases past, logic pushed aside, perhaps we would all secretly like Santa Claus to be true – at least until the credits rolled.

Above all the black and white film had charm, by the Santa’s sackful, and that is something sadly lacking in this stage version.

GENTLER PACE

There is much rushing about and short scenes, which might work on screen, but the result here was bitty rather than slick and perhaps a gentler pace at times might have helped develop the charm that this sentimental story is crying out for. The pivotal court scene, for example, was more reminiscent of  performance of Chicago than Seaton’s more measured version. And when it came to snow . . . just one corner of the stage managed a sprinkling from above. Whether budget constraints or technical failure, it was hardly the stuff of White Christmas.

The story is simple. Doris, played with haughty efficiency, and a soft heart of course, by Genevieve Nicole, believes in nothing you can’t see, smell, touch, hear or taste – which makes the concept of Father Christmas a bit of a no-no. Her no belief without proof philosophy seems to stem from a somewhat short and less than happy marriage.

She is the store executive organising New York department store Macy’s Christmas parade, Christmas of course being a marketing opportunity, and her hired Santa has been partaking of a little too much festive spirit – 40 per cent proof – so she hires a passing bearded, elderly gent, Kris Kringle, played with suitable avuncularity by James Murphy, to take his place.

The only problem is Kringle actually believes he is Father Christmas and slowly Doris’s daughter Poppy Carter starts to believe it as well, encouraged by ex-marine and newly qualified lawyer Fred, played with a laid-back air by Daniel Fletcher. Fred has fallen for Doris and she for him, although she doesn’t know it yet.

Kringle doesn’t quite get the idea of retailing and happily sends customers to other stores to buy if Macy’s don’t have a product or are more expensive than competitors.

Suicidal, except it makes Macy’s the most popular store on the block, until the store psychologist (Gary Roe), who seems to hate everyone, applies to have Kris Kringle committed as a genial nutter on the grounds he believes he actually is Santa Claus, hence the court case, with Fred as his lawyer, to argue his case.

FAIRY-TALE

It’s a modern day fairy-tale and to be fair this production only opened in Hayes on Monday, November 11, Croydon Tuesday and Wednesday and opened at Wolverhampton in Thursday – rather like an American tourist doing Europe in a fortnight. Three venues in four days has hardly given the production time to bed down and settle in, and it shows. Hopefully some of the rough edges will be smoothed out and the sound and technical problems will vanish as the show evolves.

There is good support from Shaun McCourt as the District attorney who also doubles as the Mayor of New York where, to be honest, he does look a little like a work experience Mayor. Not his fault I hasten to add but age and gravitas comes with  . . . well age.

The same can be said of Paul Cleveland who is a convincing, if rather young looking, boss of one of the greatest department stores in the world. It is more Master than Mister Macy. Again though, he does nothing wrong and is rather good in the part.

David Kristopher-Brown gives us an enthusiastic Shellhammer, in charge of the store’s toy section, and he is particularly enthusiastic about selling the 7,000 plastic alligators he inadvertently ordered.

Incidentally, a small point I know, but perhaps the closing scene, the final confirmation for Susan that Santa exists when the present she has asked Santa for looks like it is about to arrive, could be made a little clearer for those who have not seen the film. Perhaps a look and a wink from Santa while Fred shows Doris a photograph?

The musical numbers, including Willson’s 1951 song It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, are pleasant rather than memorable with no real show stopper and choreography by Richard Jones has some highlights, particularly in the opening parade where we see a hard working ensemble who cover every other part in the show.

And as I said at the start, the elements in this production, directed by Nicola Samer, are all there and with a little persuasion and time on the road to bed down, the miracle might yet happen. To 16-11-13.

Roger Clarke

And from the back of the fairy grotto . . .

***

CHRISTMAS is coming and Santa is already up and running in this touring stage version of the famous 1947 film.

But, hard as the cast work, the musical never reaches any great heights, particularly in the build-up during the first act.

Basically the story revolves round a gentle portly man with a beard who gets the job of Father Christmas at a major New York store, and impresses customers with his honesty even though it puts him in line for the sack (the dismissal kind rather than the toy-toting version).

James Murphy is convincing as Kris Kringle who even directs some of the customers to rival stores where they can get a better bargain, and he causes young Susan (Poppy Carter) to shake off family

problems and believe in him Strong performances, too, from Genevieve Nicole as Poppy's high-flying mother, Doris, Daniel Fletcher (Fred) and David Kristopher-Brown (Shellhammer).

The show has more bite in the second act during the Supreme Court hearing when Kringle needs to try and prove he is the genuine Father Christmas.

But he nearest thing to a miracle seen by the audience on opening night - when there were a few sound problems -

came when snow fell on just a third of the stage! To 16-11-13..

Paul Marston

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