Playwright and composer Meredith Willson created four musicals in his lifetime.
Two were hits (The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown), one wasn’t, and one (about Christopher Columbus) never made it to Broadway — which is just as well.
The one that wasn’t a hit was originally called Here’s Love, although it has since been resurrected with a more sensible title: Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical.
The show wasn’t embraced by audiences in 1963. Since then, although the movie is still beloved today, so is Willson’s musical adaptation. The latter has become a Christmas perennial on community theater stages across the country. Perhaps contemporary audiences are more amenable to remakes and reboots.
Willson changed some of the movie’s details, but the bones are the same: A man claiming to be the real Santa Claus arrives in the lives of cynics and idealists and changes everyone for the better.
In the performance I saw, the role of Susan Walker, the unusually pragmatic little girl who grows less pragmatic (and happier) as the show goes along, was played by Avery Garrett.
Garrett is excellent. Her performance is ingratiating without being cloying. Her Susan Walker seems like a real girl instead of a stagy version of one. She has good chemistry with Gary Coffelt as Kris Kringle. The role of Susan Walker is shared by Sarrazine Prough, who also does a bang-up job, or so I have heard.
Coffelt is a top-notch Kringle. Unlike many portrayals of Santa Claus, Coffelt’s goes far beyond white whiskers. Coffelt has it all: The twinkle, the mild mischievousness, the grandfatherly glow, and the ho-ho-ho.
The whole cast is fine with special kudos going to Rob Pelance as Macy’s junior executive Marvin Shellhammer. Shellhammer (called Julian in the film) is a wonderful combination of manic toady and acerbic Greek chorus and Pelance does him justice.
Songs include one that has stood the test of time. Willson’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” has entered the Christmas canon and has been recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Michael Buble. The rest of the score is also pleasant enough.
The weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day are packed with events and expectations that can feel more crushing than cheery. The Civic Theatre’s production of Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical is your chance to start the holiday season right, with sweetness and sentiment and artistry.
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