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If you can believe that 20th Century Fox would allow John Payne, Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and little Natalie Wood to recreate their roles in the beloved Miracle on 34th Street for a national radio audience during 1947, the year their film was first released, then you’re in the proper spirit for the Davidson Community Players’ current holiday show. That spirit is, of course, the Christmas spirit, but it’s also the spirit of the Oscar-winning Valentine Davies story that director George Seaton turned into his Oscar-winning screenplay. The miraculous accord between Macy’s and Gimbels that gives the story its title happens because Kris Kringle flouts common business sense and store Santa etiquette, sending Macy’s customers to competitors when the competition had the toy that a child truly wanted – or they sold the same toy at a better price. Instead of putting a dent in Macy’s holiday sales, Kringle’s honesty and candor draws legions of Macy’s admirers declaring their loyalty. If Fox caught the spirit of their own film, why wouldn’t they compete with themselves and give away their prize story on nationwide radio?
Matt Merrell, the DCP executive director who adapted Seaton’s screenplay and stage directed this production, doesn’t put that spin on Fox’s largesse. Half of his inspiration comes from such Yuletide radio-style staples as The 1940s Radio Hour and It’s a Wonderful Life, which have temporarily worn out their welcome. This fresh infusion of low-budget, old-time nostalgia, with actors ostensibly reading from their scripts, fits rather nicely into the confines of the Armour Street Theatre, though I’d be more pleased if the tech budget weren’t so stingy. The control room, where Foley artist David Haynes cues the broadcast and performs sound effects, isn’t glassed in, and the three microphones spread across the downstage look as old as they are now without a trace of their 1947 sheen – and they’re not live. As a result, Haynes’ feats of Foley are sometimes only faintly heard, and the Anderson Sisters’ spots during commercial breaks are underpowered. These technical shortcomings aren’t deal-breakers, since we do get functional “On Air” and “Applause” signs, and the Andersons – Sarah Palasick, Catherine Costigan, and Music Director Meredith Swanson – are largely redeemed by the cute choreography of Katie Williams.
Making room for the studio frou-frou, which includes promos for Davidson’s Wooden Stone Gallery (co-producers of the show) and Lux soap flakes, Merrell’s distillation of the screenplay robs the story of a little more nuance than the fully-staged adaptation now running at ImaginOn by the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. We see less of the hostilities between Kris and the neurotic Macy’s vocational counselor, Sawyer, and far less of the chemistry between our hero, lawyer Fred Gailey, and the two skeptical females he’s trying to win over – to himself and belief in Santa – Doris Walker and her daughter Susan. What Merrell does best is the climactic courtroom saga, where Kris is judicially upheld as the true Santa against all odds, and the final resolution, where little Susan’s doubts are joyously whisked away. I’d prefer to take in these two scenes uninterrupted by a commercial break, but perhaps that last Wooden Stone spot will reassure people that capitalism hasn’t been entirely overthrown by the Christmas spirit.
DCP’s cast, as usual, transcends typical community theatre expectations, with delightful performances even in the cameo roles. Jim Esposito has grown the requisite beard to play Kris Kringle, not a long or pure white one, but enough to claim the Santa aura, and his roly-poly geniality and chesty ho-ho-hos decisively overcome all objections. Though not a redhead, there’s a vague physical resemblance between Lizzie Schwarz and Maureen O’Hara as she brings us Doris, enough to make me miss the fullness of her melting character arc even more. Some extra thawing wouldn’t have hurt Bill Reilly as Gailey, but he manipulates the dramatic tensions of the courtroom scenes beautifully. Holly Springate gets into Susan’s starchiness more convincingly than the more childish moment when Kris schools her on acting like an animal, but she drives the denouement at the new house with genuine jubilation (and she alternates with Parker Mullet in the role).
Except for our narrator, Alaina Gillman, who may remind you of a Hollywood star more than anyone else in her chic outfit, all the other actors appear in multiple roles. Of course, such jump cut multitasking is where the radio format shines, making us feel like insiders as we watch the creation of the sonic illusions hitting the airwaves. Chris Kite has a nifty pair of roles, floating in briefly as Mr. Gimbel for the department store détente before transforming into Judge Harper in the denouement, but Curtis Kriner makes a deeper impression as Sawyer, the Judas of our tale, before becoming the dimwitted Postman who unwittingly helps acquit Kringle. Ade Herbert probably executes the quickest hairpin turn in character, changing from District Attorney Thomas Mara to Alfred, Kris’s hapless Macy’s co-worker, while Alyce Sminkey unquestionably traverses the widest range, beginning as store supervisor Shellhammer before testifying in court as the DA’s son and moonlighting as the cleverer of the two postal workers.
Make no mistake, this 77-minute performance delivers on the proverbial laughter and tears. Yet at that length, DCP’s Miracle is a scant two minutes longer than the Children’s Theatre version. Enriched with more technical expertise and enlarged to ingest more of the original character development, Merrell’s piece could be even more vivid and memorable. His choice of material is as good as his casting choices, for Miracle on 34th Street reemerges here as one of the best Christmas yarns around.
Davidson Community Players’ Miracle on 34th Street continues through Sunday, December 22. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.