Sigh. It’s that time of year again.
It is time for the Christmas-themed shows to be trotted out, so that there are times for decent production runs before the date is past and the material become stale. It is especially hard this time of year if you are not Christian, for the predominance of Christmas this and Christmas that just serves to remind you that you are a minority in a predominantly Christian culture, and a minority in a nation that while enshrining religious freedom and the non-establishment clause, comes as close as possible to crossing that line of establishing. It also doesn’t help when your favorite Christmas song (“Christmas Dinner” by Peter, Paul and Mary) (which really expresses the spirit of the day, as I understand it), rarely gets airplay; and your favorite Christmas musical A Mulholland Christmas Carol is rarely produced.
But I digress. But I note the digression comes from the fact that I saw my first Christmas theatre of the season last night, Miracle on 34th Street — A Live Musical Radio Play at Actors Co-op (FB) last night. Almost everyone should know the movie version of Miracle, which was released in 1947. That same year, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast an adaptation for radio; that version was then adapted by Lance Arthur Smith (FB) to provide an updated stage version for licensing. That version also interpolated some traditional Christmas songs, as well as original songs and arrangements by Jon Lorenz (FB).
If you’re not familiar with the story, have you been living under a rock? Uhh, strike that. The basic story concerns a skeptical single mother/divorcee (Doris Walker) who hires a man who calls himself Kris Kringle and insists he is the real Santa to be the Macys Santa, her single next door neighbor (Fred Gailey) who believes his story, and her daughter (Susan Walker) who must be taught to have faith. When Kringle brings together R.H. Macy and the owner of his bitter rival, Gimbels, others begin to believe as well. But when Kringle assaults the store doctor who doesn’t believe he is Santa, Kringle is put on trial prove his claim. You can guess who wins. If you want more details, you can read the movie’s plot synopsis. The radio play makes some minor changes: It is the single mom (Doris Walker) who calls out the drunk Santa who is fired, the gender of the doctor at the old-age home is changed; it is Kringle’s cane, not the doctor’s umbrella, that is used for the assault; and it is Doris that recognizes the solution for the trail, not a post office employee. But these are minor changes.
As I said, I normally do not like most Christmas shows, especially if they get too religious. But this one, well, was a lot of fun. The story is a clever one, with the right amounts of sentimentality and humor. It was well performed, with engaging performers who were clearly having fun with their roles. It makes a religious point, but one that isn’t too offensive if you aren’t Christian. As Christmas plays go, this was really quite enjoyable.
I’ve written before about this company, and their mission statement: Christian actors, being an outreach of Christ’s hope. They always have about one show each year that subtly, or not so subtly, emphasizes that message. This had the feeling of that show, and the message it sent — one of the importance of having faith in something, and how that can shape your life — is clearly within that mission. The show also is a commentary on the commercialism that Christmas has become, and is really a celebration of what is at the heart of Christmas: the start of a deeper faith in something that can’t be proven. We can’t prove that Santa — or at least the spirit of Santa — does not exist. It’s the same way that a Christmas Carol still resonates: ghost may not be real, but the power of the story to transform your life into something for good does exist.
Miracle on 34th Street, at its heart, is a story about faith and the power of believing. Even if you are not Christian and do not believe in Santa, there is still a lot that you take on faith — and you need to be reminded the importance of faith in your life.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have a few quibbles, and most of them are anachronistically related. The opening advertisement of the show sells Tupperware, and make a reference to Felix the Cat (the wonderful wonderful cat). This performance was taking place in 1947 according to the program. Tupperware wasn’t invented until 1946; it is unclear if there would be ads on a radio show in 1947 or 1948 (home parties didn’t start until the 1950s). Felix the Cat, while popular in the 1920s, had disappeared from the screens in the late 1940s — so it is unclear if the references would be there; more importantly, the “wonderful wonderful cat” theme wouldn’t be there as it started with the TV animation in the late 1950s. It is unclear whether RCA would be advertising their defense products on radio; they would be more likely to advertise their consumer radios. Lastly, much is made of the US Postal Service delivering the letters to Santa in the 2nd Act — there’s even a big song and dance number. But the USPS didn’t come into existence until 1971; before then, it was the US Post Office Department. Then there’s the opening number in the 2nd act about hardware and software — nothing you would have even heard mentioned on radio then. The show also sent me down the Wikipediahole about Macys and Gimbels, and how the Gimbels chain disappeared. As I’ve been having fun exploring the department story history of the Northridge Fashion Center, this was a fun diversion.
The larger quibble is one of broader story. As opposed to just presenting the story of Miracle, this is presented as a radio play. The actors are given distinct names. But aside from the roles they play in the radio production, we learn nothing about them. For that, you could have just had actors playing multiple roles, as they do in the sibling production of Irma Vep. What the book of this show needs to do is establish who these actors are in real life, and have the faith portrayal in the story have a broader impact in the actor’s lives. Without that, the “radio play” aspects of this show adds little, except for the ability to not need a lot of scenery.
But those are nits from someone obsessed with the minutiae of history. This is just a fun Christmas show. Under the direction of Joseph Leo Bwarie (⭐FB), and with choreography by Anna Aimee White, the production is well paced, with movement that works well (even if it is not believable for an actual radio production, which wouldn’t have had the actors doing the sound effects).
In center of things — not necessarily the lead position — is Sal Sabella (FB) Kristopher Van Lisberg as Kris Kringle and Judge Harper. When portraying Kringle, Sabella brought the right timber to the voice, and the proper level of warmth to the character. His voice as the judge was sufficiently different.
The main characters of interest are played by Lauren Thompson (FB) Cordelia Ragsdale as Doris Walker and others; Matt Solomon (FB) Grady Williams as Fred Gailey, Alfred, Mr. Sawyer, and others; and Callie Chae Pyken Gracie De Marco as Susan Walker. We’ve seen Thompson many times on the Co-Op stage, and she is uniformly strong. She sings and moves well, and projected a great personality throughout the show as her primary character. Solomon had a good chemistry with her when playing Gailey, and provided sufficient vocal differentiation as Alfred and Mr. Sawyer. Pyken brought a great youthful cuteness and a wonderful voice to her character.
Rounding out the cast in smaller character and support roles were Kristen Cook (FB) Olivia Glatt as Dr. Pierce, Mrs. Mara, Miss Prong, and others; Phil Crowley Alex Mialdo as Mr. Macy, Charley, Pianist, and the Announcer; and Jack Tavcar (FB) Wallace Ainsley as Mr. Shellhammer, Mr. Mara, Tommy, and others. All were strong and brought great humor, characterization, and voices to their roles.
Also onstage (but uncredited as such), doing sound cues and such from behind the window on stage, was the stage manager, Joanna Reyes.
Turning to the production and creative side: The radio studio scenic design was created by Tanya Orellana (FB), with Lori Berg (FB) creating the additional properties used on stage. The set seemed close enough to realistic for those who only know images of radio studios; I can’t speak to its actual realism. The most important thing is that it conveyed the image and worked well. Martha Carter (FB)’s lighting design worked well to establish mood, although that was less critical in a radio production; more critically, it served to appropriately focus attention. My only quibble is that the back row of lights tended to shine into the eyes of Row A. Robert Arturo Ramirez‘s sound design provided appropriate sound effects. Jessica Champagne Hansen (FB)’s costumes and Jessica Mills (FB)’s hair design seemed appropriately late 1940s. Rounding out the production team were: Anthony Lucca (FB) Music Director; Heather Chesley (FB) Artistic Chairwoman; Selah Victor (FB) Production Manager; Nora Feldman Publicity; and Kyle Montgomery Producer.
Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Play continues at Actors Co-op (FB) through December 15, 2019. Tickets are available through the Actors Co-Op Web Site, discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. If you like Christmas stories, you’ll really enjoy this: it is well performed and a touching story. Even if you can only tolerate Christmas stories, I think you’ll find this enjoyable just for the good performances and the legal hijinks. If you can’t stand any mention of Christmas… this is going to be a hard two months, but it too shall pass.
I like to say that I’m a professional audience, and that’s why I like theatre. In my real life, I’m a cybersecurity subject matter expert — an engineer. I don’t have the creativity in me to inhabit other characters, and in general, the writing I do is limited to non-fiction — government documents and policies, highway pages, and reviews like these. I don’t have the ability to take an idea and turn it into characters and stories that might be compelling to an audience. But as I just noted, I’m also a long time cybersecurity professional, and attending years of the Hollywood Fringe Festival has convinced me that the medium of the stage could be used to teach about cybersecurity in a way that audiences could learn, without being overwhelmed with technology. The notion I have is to take some broad cybersecurity themes and concepts and translate them into stories that could teach in a compelling way. But I don’t have the expertise to build a story out of the idea. If this is something that might interest you, please let me know. I don’t have funds for a commission or anything like that, but it might be something we could turn into a property beneficial for all.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Tonight brings our second show of the weekend: Big Daddy the Band of 1959 at McCabes (FB) in Santa Monica. Tickets were still available the last time I looked. The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB). November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks.
December is getting busy, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The weekend after ACSAC brings an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB). I also have a hold for December 21 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild.
Looking to January: most of the month is currently quiet, but the middle of the month is busy, with What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, and Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the third weekend, and Cirque Éloize at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the last weekend. Things start heating up in February, with The Last Ship (with Sting) at the Ahmanson Theatre the first weekend; A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB) the third weekend; and (whew!) The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. March is a bit more open, with only Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) and Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) currently on the calendar. Currently.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!