The Christmas countdown is on.
Jingle bells and Santa hats and Christmas lights are everywhere. (There may also be a stressed out shopper or two.) Seems like everything and everybody wants to get in on some Christmas action. Area theaters like to capitalize on the season as well. You can't blame them, and besides, they get an opportunity to actually contribute to the holiday spirit.
Live Theatre Workshop has thrown their Santa hat into the ring with an adaptation of the classic Miracle of 34th Street, the 1947 movie that introduced us to Natalie Wood and the real Kris Kringle. Director Stephen Frankenfield, an LTW mainstay, has adapted the "Lux Radio Theatre Original 1947 Radio Broadcast," complete with sound effects and commercials for Lux Toilet Soap and Phillips Milk of Magnesia. We, of course, are the live radio broadcast audience.
It's a fine enough idea and it works pretty well. However, while it's pretty cool to see something we're familiar with, an almost a sacred part of our holiday tradition, it's also different from what we're used to, so by comparison, it might fall short of our expectations.
LTW's version sticks really close to the story we know, and that's a good thing. And because it's told in a completely different context—a radio broadcast—rather than being performed as merely a play version of the film, it gets over that potential speed bump of unhappy comparison. In fact, it actually adds a fun dimension as we get a behind-the-scenes look at how a story is brought to life in a radio broadcast.
So, you know the story. Doris Walker is a single mom and has a job as the coordinator of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. She has a young daughter, Susan, and lives across the hall from a single man, Fred Gailey, who seems like a nice guy and befriends young Susan perhaps as a way to get to know mom. But mom is not big on optimism or fairy tales, and little Susan doesn't believe there is a Santa Claus, Mr. Gailey discovers. On Thanksgiving Day the man hired to play Santa Claus in the parade shows up to the gig inebriated and is replaced at the last minute by a volunteer, a man who looks a lot like Santa Claus. In fact, he claims his name is Kris Kringle. Whatever, thinks Doris. He will make a fine substitute in the parade and a perfect Macy's department store Santa. And he does, until word gets out that he confides to the moms whose children are requesting toys that Macy doesn't carry that they can be had at a competitor's store. Sending shoppers to buy at other stores? That will never do, cries management. But the shoppers think it's a great thing and are so thankful that they become even more loyal Macy's clientele.
Things get dicey, though, when the mysterious Kris is deemed to be rather, well, insane, and is sent to Bellevue. There's a court hearing to determine if that's where he should stay, and lawyer Gailey, who does have a believer's heart, represents him in court. He'd really like to prove to Susan and Doris there's magic in the world, especially in folks like Kris. But can he prove in a court of law Kris is really the Santa Claus and that he can really make wishes come true?
Cast members Cliff Madison, Missie Scheffman, Josh Parra, Bree Boyd, Shanna Brock and Michael F. Woodson, have a lot of fun with this, and we have a lot of fun watching them change their voices for different characters and utilizing odd items for certain effects, like speaking into a martini shaker to sound like they are on the receiving end of a phone call. It's fun too to see them switching gears and acting out scenarios that feature the products of their sponsors. (It's not so fun when they have to sing a jingle—they're not quite up to speed on that. Ouch.) And of course we get to see the means by which different sound effects are made.
One thing that might help us in the actual audience enjoy those sounds better would be to use a live microphone just for the effects. There are microphones as props for the actors to use as they deliver the story, and there's a prop microphone at the sound-effects table, so we assume the broadcast audience can hear the effects, but the live audience can't hear them well, especially the subtler ones. The spilling of boxes of letters to Santa doesn't really make much of a sound unamplified so it's more of a sight gag. It'd be better if we could delight in what an actual audience outside the studio might be hearing.
On opening night, although the pace was steady, there wasn't quite enough actual shape to the story itself, not much feeling of rising and falling and building to a climax. It's tricky when you have to break away from story momentum to peddle soap and such.
Things like this can work themselves out with a little more direction and work in front of an audience. The ingredients are there. The actors have been very inventive and they are a delight to watch. When they get the few kinks worked out, who knows? LTW's version of Miracle on 34th Street just might earn a place in the canon of Christmas classics.