Arlington — There are few things in this world that can make a reviewer feel Grinch-ier than a listless take on a holiday classic. It’s no fun to ding the old favorites—White Christmas, A Christmas Carol, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and yes, also enshrined in that pantheon, Miracle on 34th Street. We want to be swept away into the holiday magic just like the next guy. So it gives me no pleasure to say that Theatre Arlington’s production of this beloved—if more than a little dated—classic left me, for the most part, colder than a miser’s heart.
Doris Walker (Taylor Staniforth)’s really got trouble. She’s running the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and her lead Santa, the star of the show, is dead drunk. But, miracle of miracles, up pops a dead ringer for Santa—the build, the beard, the glasses. This new Santa’s a hit, so Macy’s hires him on as the new Santa for their flagship store at Broadway and 34th Street. Of course, there’s a hitch—their new Santa says his name’s Kris Kringle (Eugene Chandler), and that he’s the real deal. Doris, and her daughter Susan (Lucy Chambers), are both far too practical to believe in such nonsense, but Kris’ fresh approach to his work—directing parents to other stores if Macy’s doesn’t stock their little darling’s Christmas toy de jure—inspires the entire city of New York to reflect on the true spirit of Christmas. Even little Susan, whose mother has raised her to avoid any flights of fancy, falls for Kris’ charm, confiding her Christmas wish for a new father and house for her and her mother. Kris’ star may be on the rise, but dastardly Macy’s employee Mr. Sawyer (Micah Green) thinks Kris’ “delusions” are dangerous, and seeks to have him permanently committed. It’s up to Doris and Susan’s good-hearted neighbor Fred (Josh Batty), a lawyer by trade, to take on the New York Court system to save Kris, and help him make Susan’s Christmas dreams come true.
If Miracle on 34th Street’s success lived or died solely based on its Kris Kringle, Theatre Arlington’s production, directed by guest director Larry Cure, would be in the pink. Eugene Chandler’s Kris is lovely—never over the top, with just a faint hint of that old mid-Atlantic accent movie stars from the 40s cultivated. Full of gentlemanly cheer throughout most of the production, Chandler even brings a real sense of despair to Kringle’s scenes after he’s been locked up for his apparent psychosis. But with a few notable exceptions (particularly Tyler Thompson as beleaguered Macy’s employee Mrs. Shellhammer, and audience favorite Micah Green as the over-the-top villain of the piece, Mr. Sawyer), the rest of the cast seems unengaged by the material, especially in the first Act, which dragged terribly (and was further dogged by problems with under-micced actors and a persistently rattling air conditioner vent). Things improved in Act II, partially due to the inherent drama of a courtroom battle and the jolt of energy from the additions of adversarial prosecutor Mr. Mara (Aaron DeLay), beleaguered Judge Harper (Geoff Leonard-Robinson), and the New York City political adviser with the heavy Texas drawl Charlie Halloran (Truman Thompson), but despite that, the show certainly felt longer than its two hour run time.
Adapted from the original script by Mountain Community Theater in Ben Loman, California, the script doesn’t stray far from the original concept from writer/producer Valentine Davies, who came up with the idea while serving in the Coast Guard in 1944. The story sprang from Davies’ feeling of disillusionment with how commercial Christmas had become. Ah, if he could only see us now! Thus the core concept behind the piece remains relevant—increasingly so, in fact. But it might benefit from a little more thorough refurbishing, especially with regard to the love story between Doris and Fred, which feels grating when viewed through the lens of modern gender politics: embittered after her man did her wrong, cold career-driven Doris just needs the love and wisdom of a good man to set her straight. Just saying—even a classic can benefit from a little reinterpretation now and again.
The sets (design by Bryan Stevenson) and costumes (design by Karen Pierce-Burks) do a workmanlike job of conveying the time and place, with some highs and lows. “Santa’s Workshop” at Macy’s is well-designed, but the decision to design the courtroom scene with the judge’s bench facing directly out and the courtroom audience with their backs fully to the audience is baffling—a side-view would be far more effective. Kris’ longtime friend and advocate Dr. Pierce (Lee Ann Ausec) wears a charming skirt suit with a brown fur lapel and burgundy detailing, and Doris has several evocative dresses paired with her heeled black-and-grey Oxfords.
Though its Kris Kringle does deliver the goods, Theatre Arlington’s production of Miracle on 34th Street is a rare case where I might recommend going back to the movie to get the best taste of this classic little Christmas tale.