Ensemble Culture Is King in SDMT’s Great ’34th Street’
There’s a scene in Lux Radio Theater’s Miracle on 34th Street wherein Kris Kringle says Daniel Tompkins was vice president of the United States under big dog John Quincy Adams. Oops. Thing is, Tompkins, a state justice and later a New York governor, served in real life at the pleasure of James Monroe, who preceded Adams in office.
Kris, God bless him, unwittingly blew the answer as part of a cognition test amid his insistence that he’s the real Santa Claus. His slip went unnoticed — but please note that the show’s producers, not the stage personnel, were responsible for the screw-up.
The smoking gun is right there on their very own tape.Enter San Diego Musical Theatre’s turn at Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play, which has everything to recommend it even as it includes the flub. This is a sweet and terribly energetic holiday entry under director Colleen Kollar Smith, whose cleverness colors husband Lance Arthur Smith’s sassy adaptation. As for the history gaffe, it’s actually kinda charming as Kringle proceeds to win over New York’s legal and commercial machines and fuels a little girl’s belief in the unseen.
While she and her mom are rewarded beyond measure, the rest of the world revolves easier in the undeniable spirit of the season.
It wasn’t always this way, at least not as of the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Six-year-old Susan Walker (Julia van Skike) thinks giants and nursery rhymes and stuff are pretty stupid — mom Doris (Janaya Jones) has persuaded her that they, like the Christmas legend, have no connection to the real world. The perceivedly insane Kringle (Jim Chovick) begs to differ; as an itinerant Santa, his generosity triples the sales at R.H. Macy & Co.’s toy department and fuels a war with rival Gimbel Brothers.
The great thing about this piece is that it has absolutely no ax to grind. None.
From there, Susan and Doris have a change of heart as the courts stick their fingers where they don’t belong. Lawyer Fred Gailey (Matthew Malecki) saves the day, rescuing Santa from a life as a mental case at Bellevue just as Christmas ascends.
The great thing about this piece is that it has absolutely no ax to grind. None. The fierce Macy’s-Gimbels rivalry is also surprisingly friendly (as it was in reality); Doris doesn’t shout down Susan’s bright imaginings so much as calmly register her point of view; Gailey acknowledges his own fallibility amid his dog-eat-dog profession; and Susan (who genuinely likes Kris even though she thinks he’s nuts at first) takes mom’s reality in stride.Writer-director George Seaton loves us up in his 1947 play just as he did in his 1934 movie — what could have been a predictable us-and-them face-off is a fanciful win-win with a truly inspirational heart.
Kollar Smith knows this, and she’s crafted a palpable spirit of ensemble minus her main attribute. The former Lamb’s Players Theatre figure and current SDMT executive director sees limited duty here in choreography, her stock in trade — but she’s built an uncanny camaraderie without it. While the script is as user-friendly as you’ll find, so is this cast’s comportment, reflecting a breezy grace before the mics and on the periphery at downtown’s “KSDMT Radio.”
Jones’ “Deck the Halls” and van Skike’s “Snowflake Song” (in which she declares she sees “the entire world inside each snowflake”) mark the trail for Jon Lorenz’s arrangements and original tunes — listen to everybody light up “Macy’s Jingle” and “Extra, Extra!” with the fun of the moment as foley artist and announcer Cris O’Bryon punctuates things with his audio exclamation points. Lise Hafso and Eric Hellmers are very strong factors in this ensemble culture, joining the others in multiple roles.Michael McKeon’s lush scene design un-
derscores an excellent technical effort, with Kevin Anthenill’s hair-trigger sounds renewing our focus on Beth Connelly’s costumes and Christina J. Martin’s lights. Let’s only hope that that kind of dedication declared itself in the original radio show, starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara and a 9-year-old Natalie Wood.
Tompkins took his state judgeship as a mere kid of 30, but unless somebody fixes it, his faulty reference here will also dot his legacy. That’s the way it is with anecdote — it humanizes the empirical, fueling our internal debate on the universe’s countless unseen forces. Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play is loopy with such content; by definition (and amid a ton of hard work), it befits the season of belief as surely as Santa lives and breathes. Very, very nice.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Dec. 8. Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Radio Play runs through Dec. 23 at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave. downtown. $30-$72. 858-560-5740, sdmt.org.
I’ve seen it 3 times. Fun! Thoughtful and audience participation. Go see it!