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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Toby’s Brings Back a Delightful ‘Miracle’

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Forget the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, turkey leftovers, and Black Friday. The holiday season doesn’t officially kick off locally until Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia presents a Christmas musical to put theatre-goers in the right frame of mind.  Believing in miracles doesn’t hurt either.

In Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical, their current dose of holiday cheer, Toby’s brings back the successful show from four years ago with most of the talented cast (except for the children) reprising their original roles, not to mention the fact that Director Shawn Kettering and the technical crew return as well. Therefore, they should all be well-rehearsed, and they are. 
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Miracle on 34th Street—not the black and white classic Christmas movie from 1947 presented every December on television but a live musical adaptation—plays nicely on Toby’s in-the-round stage.  The book, music and lyrics were penned by Meredith Willson of The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown fame, debuted on Broadway in 1963 under the title Here’s Love. #hocoarts

No one will compare the music in Miracle on 34th Street with the rich score of The Music Man or many other successful Broadway musicals as few of the numbers in this one are memorable, save for the popular 1951 tune “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”  Moreover, the first act contains a few dull moments and some quirky songs like “Plastic Alligator.” Fortunately, the drama, tempo and pacing pick up noticeably in the second act with the courtroom scene as most enjoyable.

The strength of Miracle on 34th Street and the reason people should buy tickets the sooner the better rests with its charming and tender family-oriented storyline and the outstanding performances by the cast as well as the work of creative team under the deft guidance of Mr. Kettering, the imaginative choreography of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, and musical direction of Douglas Lawler.

Holiday atmospherics are in place but I prefer to have seen more festive decorations to add to the Christmas flavor. Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins constructed the set, which features a few street lamps on the stage, the entrance to an apartment on a balcony, and views of the New York City skyline shown on panels surrounding the walls of the theater.  

However, what makes the visuals appealing is the seemingly limitless number of set pieces and props employed throughout the show, which add texture to the scenery.  The sleigh on wheels that Santa occupies, for example, is gorgeous, and it wouldn’t be a Christmas show without a little snow.  Lynn Joslin’s spot-on lighting design is critical in the myriad seamless scene changes.

Lawrence B. Munsey designed the authentic 1940’s suits and dresses as well as Santa outfits and other novelty garb thereby lending a realistic feel to this enchanting production.

Set in New York City before and after Thanksgiving in the late 1940s, the story focuses on a white-bearded man named Kris Kringle (played convincingly by Robert Biedermann 125) who claims to be the real Santa Claus.  He brings about a genuine “Miracle on 34th Street,” spreading good cheer and good will among men throughout New York City; encouraging camaraderie between the arch-rival department stores Macy’s and Gimbel’s; and convincing a divorced, cynical single mother, Doris Walker (Heather Marie Beck), her daughter Susan Walker (played on the night the show was reviewed by young Camden Lippert) that Santa Claus is no myth.

"Strong performances plus a delightful feel-good story (and a scrumptious buffet) make this a seasonal must-see..."

Skeptics saw otherwise, and poor Kris Kringle had to appear before a stern Judge (very well played by David Bosley-Reynolds) at a hearing in New York State Supreme Court to determine if he should be committed to Bellevue Hospital.

As these events unfold, Doris finds her neighbor Fred Gaily (Jeffrey Shankle) an ex-Marine and inexperienced lawyer who develops a father-daughter bond with Susan, falls for Doris and eventually represents Kris Kringle at the hearing, leading to a lovely conclusion.

Mr. Minnick’s choreography is most effective especially when there is a large group on the stage as in such numbers as “Plastic Alligator,” “Toy Ballet,” “My State, My Kansas,” and “That Man Over There” whereby he makes full use of the limited space by devising clever dance steps, plenty of motion and ensuring the dancers are in sync rhythmically.

Jeffrey Shankle, as he often does, delivers a polished, near-flawless performance.  In tuneful voice, he sings “My Wish,” with Ms. Beck and is simply stellar in his solo “Look, Little Girl.” 

Camden Lippert, as Susan, alternates with Lillianna Robinson during the run.  Never missing a line, never missing a cue, never missing a note or a step, Camden demonstrates strong potential in musical theatre. She already has experience under her belt having appeared in Toby’s presentation of Ragtime among other credits.

Russell Sunday plays R.H. Macy, the strict owner of the department store bearing his name. Commanding on stage and with his strong baritone, Mr. Sunday excels in “That Man Over There”—a highlight number during the courtroom scene, which in itself, is a highlight in the show. 

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
As Doris, Heather Marie Beck was well cast and delivers a solid performance.  The part requires proficient acting skills, and Ms. Beck delivers on that front particularly in her confrontations with the characters Susan and Fred.  She exhibits strong vocals in such numbers as “You Don’t Know” and “Love, Come Take Me Again” and the warm duet with Camden, “Arm in Arm.”

Veteran performer Robert John Biedermann excels as Kris Kringle.  He adroitly conveys the sweetness and kindness that all children believe Santa to be.  Everybody roots for him. 

David Bosley-Reynolds hits the mark as Judge Martin Group, delivering well-timed comedic lines. Other notable cast members are Tommy Malek as Marvin Shellhammer whose facial expressions and comedic rejoinders are golden; David Jennings as Mr. Sawyer who also showcases his comedic skills; and Justin Calhoun is particularly strong as the prosecutor Thomas Mara. 

A number of the other performers are called on to play one or more roles as well as being part of the ensemble and do so splendidly.  They include David James, AJ Whittenberger, DeCarlo Raspberry, Tina Marie DeSimone, MaryKate Brouillet, Santina Maiolatesi, Coby Kay Callahan, and Amanda Jillian Kaplan.

The Young Actor Ensemble for this reviewed performance includes: Lily Ulman, Jackson Smith, Hannah Dash, and Jonah Hale.  They all chip in with sturdy singing, dancing and acting.   
          
It is notable that many of the elements from costumes to props are true to the time period.  On the other hand, there is no attempt to scrub the sexist language in the dialogue and song lyrics, such as the term “little girl” as conveyed to an adult woman. 

As I mentioned earlier, the music does not leave one humming exiting the theater.  But the vocalists who performed the songs and Pamela Wilt’s six-piece orchestra backing them up (Ms. Wilt rotates with Douglas Lawler) does justice to the rather bland melodies.

Strong performances plus a delightful feel-good story (and a scrumptious buffet) make this a seasonal must-see, which will be enjoyed by the young and the young at heart, especially if you believe in miracles.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Miracle on 34th Street runs through January 7, 2018 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online

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