By Allen Adams CLICK HERE to view the original article
BANGOR – Holiday-style theatre magic has returned to the Bangor Opera House stage.
After 20 months of dormancy, Penobscot Theatre Company is back in action with their season opener “Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play,” adapted from the 1947 Lux Radio Broadcast by Lance Arthur Smith, with original songs and arrangements by Jon Lorenz. Directed by Jen Shepard with music direction by Larrance Fingerhut, the show runs through December 26.
It’s a retelling of the 1947 holiday classic film of the same name, a celebration of imagination and belief that truly embodies the spirit of the season with stylish delight. And don’t let the radio play designation fool you – there’s a LOT to look at here, with singing and dancing and memorable performances (including the best damned Kris Kringle you’ll ever see on an area stage).
It’s a familiar story, to be sure, but you’ve never experienced it quite like this.
We’re back at WPTC, the radio station that played host to the theatre’s 2015 production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Our host is Alex Mialdo (Reggie Whitehead), who welcomes us as the studio audience for the live radio production of “Miracle on 34th Street.” He introduces us to the evening’s players: character actors Wallace Ainsley (Grace Livingston-Kramer) and Olivia Glatt (Heather Astbury-Libby), leading man Grady Williams (Ira Kramer), Broadway star Cordelia Ragsdale (Jazmin Gorsline), rising youngster Gracie Demarco (Brenna T. Converse) and venerable legend Kristofer Van Lisberg (Ben Layman), as well as WPTC’s foley artist extraordinaire (Sophia Steadman).
And then, we’re off to the races. Well … to the parade, anyway.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, to be specific. Doris Walker (Gorsline) works for Macy’s as part of their public relations department. She’s a single mother trying her best to do right by her daughter Susan (Converse), raising the youngster to be a practical, sensible person. They live in an apartment near her workplace, down the hall from a handsome lawyer named Fred Gailey (Kramer).
However, Doris has a big problem – the man they hired to play Santa in the parade showed up drunk, so they need a replacement. Conveniently enough, a gentleman who fits the profile just happens to turn up just as she needs him – a white-bearded fellow who introduces himself as Kris Kringle (Layman). Weird, sure, but beggars can’t be choosers. She hires him and he’s so good that the powers that be want to bring him in as the Macy’s in-store Santa.
There’s just one problem – it turns out that this Kris Kringle believes that he is the actual Santa Claus.
As Doris finds herself questioning whether or not this deluded man should stick around, Kris has already endeared himself to everyone around him. Even after he began advising parents about other stores where they might find the toys they seek, he came out on top – even the miserly R.H. Macy himself (a delightful Livingston Kramer) is on board, thanks to the uptick in profit the store’s new seasonal spirit has inspired.
That’s not all Kringle inspires, either. His presence brings to life the imagination of little Susan, while also gently steering Doris and Fred into the romance that they both so clearly desire. The holiday spirit is alive and well in NYC … until the actions of an angry personnel manager (Astbury-Libby) result in Kris being arrested and committed. It’s up to Doris, Fred and Susan to figure out a plan to help save Kris, as well as maybe – just maybe – saving Christmas itself.
Along the way, “Miracle on 34th Street” gives its story the full old-time radio treatment. Interspersed throughout the narrative are brief commercial interludes on WPTC, quickie original ads for the show’s producing sponsors. They are cute, clever bits – charming and very funny. And all the while, Steadman is operating at full steam, providing live sound effects for the onstage action and contributing backing vocals for a number of the songs.
A show like this one presents some interesting challenges. Finding ways to create a sense of the visually kinetic when dealing with a show that is by definition driven primarily by sound is tricky. Director Shepard – working in tandem with choreographer Dominick Varney – proves up to the task, keeping things from falling into sedentary patterns and kicking up the energy, taking full advantage of the set’s varied levels to ensure a constant sense of movement, both during the song-and-dance numbers and the more straightforward narrative elements.
It’s also a show that puts a lot on the shoulders of its cast. Luckily, this is an ensemble gifted enough to bear up underneath that weight. Gorsline hits all the right notes as the career woman with the tough exterior, devoted to doing right by her daughter and holding a healthy skepticism with regard to the ways of the world. Kramer’s convivial joviality juxtaposes that energy nicely, bringing a broad good cheer and sense of optimism throughout. The two have a lovely chemistry. Converse delights here in her PTC debut, really bringing forth Susan’s journey of belief and imagination – she’s a real charmer, to be sure.
Layman’s Kris Kringle practically glows with warmth; there’s a gentle positivity that informs every word that he speaks and every move that he makes. It is a wonderful turn from a wonderful performer. Whitehead is top-notch as our emcee, while also embodying a number of supporting parts. Speaking of … one could argue that the unsung heroes here are Livingston Kramer and Astbury-Libby, both of whom play multiple parts with panache, cycling through roles with abandon. And of course, there’s the steadfast presence of Steadman, whose juggling of practical sound effects is punctuated by backing vocals and occasional violin playing (yes, really).
And lest we forget, the music – with music director Fingerhut on piano, joined by Jeanne G Pocius Dorismond on brass and Tommy Libby on percussion – is excellent as well, with the small trio managing to fill the space beautifully and provide strong accompaniment to the cast’s lovely vocal work.
Production values-wise, it’s the usual top-notch work from the PTC crew. Scenic designer Sean McClelland revamped and repurposed his previous design to give us a new-yet-familiar look at radio station WPTC. We get the usual excellent lighting work from Scout Hough, while Kevin Koski’s costumes are a period-reflective joy; Neil Graham’s sound design and Meredith Perry’s prop and foley work – both key to filling out the world of a radio play – work well.
“Miracle on 34th Street” really is a lovely piece of theatre, one that embraces the feel-good vibes of this cherished story while also fully embracing the radio play device. The result is a heartwarming holiday tale that is great fun to watch, filled with great songs, plenty of laughs and more than a few moments where it gets just a touch dusty there in the Opera House.
Welcome back to the stage, PTC. We missed you.