Theater Review: MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET: A LIVE MUSICAL RADIO PLAY (Actors Co-op in Hollywood)

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by Marc Wheeler on November 8, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


If you’re in need of a miracle, look no further than the Los Angeles premiere of Lance Arthur Smith‘s new adaptation of Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play presented by Actors Co-op at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Based on the Lux Radio Theatre broadcast and the beloved 1947 film starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood, this refashion of the holiday classic, commissioned in 2016 by San Diego Musical Theatre, honors the original story as much as it reimagines it; this modern Miracle is sure to make believers out of anyone.

As we take our seats inside the David Schall Theatre, we’re instantly transported to the late 1940s. We are here to watch a live radio broadcast of Miracle on 34th Street presented by seven esteemed actors of that era. The intimate studio is decked with boughs of holly; a coffee table with refreshments sits off to the side for performers to use throughout the program. Inside an onstage sound booth is stage manager Joanna Reyes ready to call the show. (Set, prop, and lighting design by Tanya Orellana, Lori Berg, and Martha Carter, respectively.)

The ’40s’ actors are introduced one-by-one by an announcer with a radio-friendly voice as he underscores their entrances on piano. The performers will each play multiple roles distinguished through simple costume changes and altered voices. Before we know it, designer Robert Arturo Ramirez‘s background noises and actor-produced Foley effects whisk us away to Herald Square for Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. Here we encounter a drunken Santa getting the axe by event director Doris Walker (Lauren Thompson) and replaced with a mysterious stranger, Kris Kringle (Sal Sabella), who shows up at the scene in the saint-nick of time. He’ll later stand trial insisting he’s the one true Santa Claus, but not before changing hearts and minds in need of a Christmas miracle.

A timeless testament to the importance of faith (outside religious connotations), Miracle on 34th Street teaches us to believe in ourselves, each other, and a more wondrous world. It shares this vision through the eyes of Doris Walker, her young daughter Susan (Callie Chae Pyken), and lawyer Fred Gailey (Matt Solomon), their next-door neighbor. After a divorce left Doris embracing a more practical view of life, she gave up hope in all things fanciful — a worldview she passed on to her daughter. But if harsh realism is a state of mind, so too is Christmas. And it’s this belief in goodwill and possibility that Kringle spreads like cheer throughout this beloved tale.

What makes this version unique is Jon Lorenz’s original music. Under the music direction of Anthony Lucca, these jazzy spirits spill out in a multitude of ways: advertising jingles during newly scripted commercial breaks; reworked traditional carols; and original numbers with tight harmonies reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters. Lorenz’s delightful music and lyrics elevate the book magically. So integrated is his 40s-era score into this radio play, it’s easy to forget it was never originally there. In fact, it’s hard now to imagine Miracle without it.

Ms. Thompson as the lovelorn Doris Walker delivers some of the show’s best vocals with her velvety vibrato. In her heartfelt ballad “Melancholy Halls” she tugs at our heartstrings with each “Fa la la la la.” Solomon makes for a charming crooner in his endearing Fred Gailey. Pyken is earnest in her depiction of Susan, a reluctant child who falls in love with make-believe. And Sabella is more daddy than grandpa as a hunky Kris Kringle. His eyes, how they twinkle, you can’t help but believe. The cast is rounded out by a delightful Phil Crowley as Mr. Macy, as well as comic powerhouse Kristen Cook and funnyman Jack Tavcar in supporting roles, both delivering powerful pipes.

This being primarily a radio show, Anna Aimee White’s choreography is simple, yet effective, confining itself to what the cast can easily perform while singing in front of mic stands. Jessica Champagne Hansen’s costumes are smart and period appropriate, accented with holiday colors and allowing for actors to easily morph into their various roles. Jessica Mills’ hair design is equally polished, popping with sleek, 40s-era curls.

While this Miracle has the intimacy of a living room, flubbed lines go from the quaint charm of a live broadcast to a clear need for actors to polish up before the next performance. Likewise, the use of “Applause” signs is bumbled: We are instructed at the top of the broadcast to clap when they light up, yet they rarely illuminate — leaving theatergoers to often stifle applause even when clapping seems appropriate. Despite these quibbles, this family-friendly production will likely hold a certain charm for modern audiences, given the recent surge in podcast popularity. That we get to sit in on such a taping makes us feel even more involved in it — our reactions are literally a part of its final product (if only in make-believe).

With Miracle, director Joseph Leo Bwarie has given us a gift of imagination. Though it may be steeped in classic Christmas nostalgia and a distant past that lives inside us — childhoods where a belief in miracles may have come easier — it nonetheless inspires us to widen our perspective of the present moment to include a belief in possibilities that heretofore have lived outside our periphery.

Santa is surely proud.


photos by Matthew Gilmore

Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play
Actors Co-op
David Schall Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St. (First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood)
Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 2:30; some Sat’s at 2:30; (dark Thanksgiving weekend)
ends on December 15, 2019
for tickets, call 323.462.8460 or visit Actors Co-op

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