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Wednesday, November 22, 2023

A ‘Miracle’ Returns to Toby’s with Holiday Cheer

Robert Biedermann 125 as Kris Kringle

When I think of miracles a couple of

 things immediately pop into my head. “Do you believe in miracles?” shouted sportscaster Al Michaels at the conclusion of the U.S men’s hockey team upsetting the heavily favored Soviet squad during the 1980 Winter Olympics. The other is Miracle on 34th Street, a sweet musical that is now ushering in the holiday season at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia.

During these tense times, it is a delight to escape to the warm, comfortable in-the-round theatre venue known as Toby’s and to enjoy not only a luscious buffet but also to spend a couple of hours experiencing a miracle. In bringing back Miracle on 34th Street for the third time in ten years, Toby’s is offering as a dose of holiday cheer comfort food for the palette and comfort food for the eyes and ears.

Most of the energetic and talented cast members are reprising their original roles (except for the children), not to mention the fact that Director Shawn Kettering and Choreographer Mark Minnick as well as some of the proficient technical crew also return. Therefore, they should all be well-rehearsed, and clearly they are.

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 neatly 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.

No one will compare the melodies in Miracle on 34th Street with the rich score in The Music Man or come close to the hefty scores of many other successful Broadway musicals. Indeed, 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 slow 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 being most enjoyable.

The strength of Miracle on 34th Street and the reason people should buy tickets the sooner the better rests with its endearing storyline and the outstanding performances. Every role is perfectly cast, and that lends to the sheen of the production.

"...Toby’s is offering as a dose of holiday cheer comfort food for the palette and comfort food for the eyes and ears."

The work of the creative team excels under the deft guidance of Mr. Kettering, the imaginative choreography of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, and the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings with Nathan Scavilla conducting the six-piece orchestra on the reviewed performance. 

Set in New York City before and after Thanksgiving in the late 1940s, the story focuses on a white-bearded, avuncular 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. He encourages camaraderie between the arch-rival department stores Macy’s and Gimbel’s, and persuades a divorced, cynical single mother, Doris Walker (Heather Marie Beck), her daughter Susan Walker (played on the night the show was reviewed by young Hazel Vogel who alternates with Audrey Wolff) that Santa Claus is no myth.

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

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.

Holiday atmospherics are in place. Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins constructed the set, which features a few streetlamps on the stage, the entrance to an apartment on a balcony, Christmas trees, garland, Christmas lights and views of the New York City apartment buildings and other images displayed on panels surrounding the walls of the theater. 

However, what makes the visuals even more 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 effective lighting design is critical to the myriad seamless scene changes. 

Mark Smedley’s sound design helped the performers effectively ring in the holiday season.

Sarah King designed the authentic 1940’s suits and dresses as well as Santa outfits and other novelty garb, such as clowns and police uniforms, thereby lending a realistic feel to this enchanting production.

The cast of Miracle on 34th Street

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

Jeffrey Shankle, as he often does, delivers a sparkling, near-flawless performance.  In tuneful voice, he sings “My Wish,” with Hazel and is simply stellar in his solo “Look, Little Girl.” The title and lyrics are cringe-worthy, but the show was set in the 1940’s after all.

Coming off an eight-months run in the national tour of Les Misérables, Hazel Vogel as Susan shines. Never missing a line, never missing a cue, never missing a note or a step, Hazel demonstrates can't-miss potential in musical theatre.

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

As Doris, Heather Marie Beck is 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 showcases her sturdy vocals in such numbers as “You Don’t Know” and “Love, Come Take Me Again” and the warm duet with Hazel, “Arm in Arm.”

Veteran performer Robert John Biedermann 125 plays Kris Kringle well.  He adroitly conveys the sweetness and kindness that all children believe Santa to be. His performance of "Here's Love" is touching. Everybody roots for him.

David Bosley-Reynolds hits the mark as Judge Martin Group particularly in that fun courtroom scene and the Governor, delivering well-timed comedic lines.

Another notable cast member is the always entertaining David James as Marvin Shellhammer whose facial expressions and comedic rejoinders are in the “don’t-miss” category.

Shane Lowry as Mr. Sawyer also exhibits comedic skills, and Justin Calhoun is especially 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: Valerie Adams Rigsbee, Patrick Gover, AJ Whittenberger, Ryan Sellers, MaryKate Brouillet, Brooke Bloomquist, Lydia Gifford, Gwyneth Porter (alternates with Julia Bellinger), Jordyn Polk (alternates with AJ Bassett), Dylan Iwanczuk (alternates with Ezra Tornquist), Amanda Kaplan Landstrom, and Julia Ballenger (alternates with Skyler Smelkinson).

Excellent 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.  To answer Al Michaels’ “Do you believe in miracles?’—the answer is Yes!

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

Miracle on 34th Street runs through January 7, 2024, 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 410-730-8311or visiting online.

Photos: Jeri Tidwell Photography

The Menu is shown here.

Drink Special: The Kringle