Willson Musical Not Quite A Miracle

Once the holiday season begins there’s one thing you can be sure of: before it ends you will have the chance to see many holiday-themed shows.

On stage, on TV or on the silver screen, most are varied productions of the same story as the “classics” eventually go from print to film to stage play to musical, stage and film. How you get your dose of Christmas cheer is your choice, but be aware that not all are the same, even if they share a namel.

Such is the case with “Here’s Love,” which opened Friday at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

Initially, that was the title given the musical version of the now-classic 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street.” It opened on Broadway in October 1963, played thru July 1964 and departed. When it reappeared it had adopted the movie title (adding “The Musical”), probably for more instant recognition.

It’s pedigree is impressive. Book, music and lyrics are by Meredith Willson, who performed the same triple threat in 1957 with “The Music Man,” a stage and screen blockbuster, and again in 1960 with “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

Only natural to figure that another musical would follow in the timesteps of its older siblings, which just goes to show that lightning may strike twice but three strikes can mean you’re out.

In spite of an excellent production directed by WW artistic director Scott Michaels, who also is responsible for the outstanding choreography, the theatrical script has a hard edge which shifts the tone from the film’s sweet and kind-hearted feeling to one that is uncomfortably cynical. Even the comic roles are way off the wall.

The score is well-handled by the eight piece orchestra under the direction of Thomas N. Stirling, and the voices, both solo and ensemble, are up to the high WW standard. The problem, with one exception, is that the songs are easily forgettable. The exception is “Pinecones and Hollyberries,” a lovely duet between Kris Kringle (Robert J. Miller) and young Susan Walker (Lauren Housel) which harkens back to “gentler Christmas times.” It incorporates one of Willson’s earlier seasonal melodies, “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas,” and definitely is worth the Act II reprise.

Wagon Wheel Theatre  Miracle on 34th StreetMiller, who could double anywhere as Old St. Nick (the beard is real), infuses his character with ingratiating warmth and Claus-worthy charm. His duet with young Sadie Lemon as Hendrika, a little European refugee, is delivered in believable Dutch (on both parts) and is a lovely highlight of the show.

Housel avoids any hint of brattiness as the young girl brought up to believe only what she can “see, smell, taste or touch.” As Susan’s realist mother Doris Walker, Jennifer Dow again proves that she is one of WW’s hidden treasures. Unfortunately, this script makes Fred Gaily (Michael Mott) a very brash ex-Marine who wants to be a lawyer. His relationship with Doris is fast and furious and not very romantic.

The performers, both adults and children, do their best to keep the parade moving along briskly, but I kept hoping a barbershop quartet would stroll through.

“MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, the musical” plays through December 18 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performances dates and times and reservations, call (574) 269-7996 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org




Marley Looks at Old Scrooge

It took Charles Dickens only six weeks to write “A Christmas Carol.”

Published Dec. 17, 1843, there was no way the Victorian novelist could have predicted its amazing longevity or its effect on the celebration of the holiday itself.

In the past 168 years, Dickens novella has never been out of print. It has been the basis for 28 movies, from silent films to Technicolor musicals, as well as for an opera, too many television versions and at least one ballet and a symphony. 

But who’s counting? The aim now, it seems, is to come up with a new angle for the very familiar story. Among the latest is one being presented through Dec. 18 by South Bend Civic Theatre: “A Christmas Carol: Scrooge & Marley.” The theatrical “hook” for this particular version is telling it through the eyes of Jacob Marley.

Even though the first words of the book are “Marley was dead,” playwright Israel Horovitz has opted to bring him back into the world of the living — at least in a ghostly form. In fact, the audience in the Warner Mainstage Auditorium is greeted first with the sight of Marley (Greg Melton) climbing out of his coffin, hollow cheeks, green complexion, bandaged head, clanking chains, echoing moans and all. Given the current fascination with zombies, vampires and werewolves, it seemed quite fitting.

In an opening that, more so than most adaptations, takes a great deal of the dialogue directly from Dickens’ text, the gangly ghost notes that what follows will play out the “Scroogey” side of the carol. He then proceeds to direct attention to the counting house of Scrooge & Marley on Christmas Eve, and the action begins.

There are no major variations in the familiar storyline, but the hardworking cast (most of the performers play two roles plus serve as members of the caroling ensemble) seemed to shift easily from one character to another, with appropriate wigs and costumes aiding the transformations. Only Marley, Scrooge (Allan W. Holody), Tiny Tim (adorable Brendan Siwik whose clear delivery happily sent “God bless us every one” to the last seat in the house) and, for some reason, Martha Cratchett (Clare Costello), had the luxury of focusing only on one role.

South Bend Civic Theatre Christmas Carol Scrooge & MarleyWhat makes this “Carol” interesting enough to hold the attention even of those who know the plot by heart are the very “special effects” that pop up (sometimes literally) throughout the two-hour production.

Spirits emerging from (and returning to) a smoking fireplace, a shift-shaping door knocker, a variety of Christmas trees, a good deal of thunder and lightening, a well-lit gravestone, flashes of fire and a Spirit of Christmas Yet To Be that is well worth the wait! (Note: Marley’s Act 2 entrance through the audience is a real shocker, especially for two with seats on the aisle.)

There are shifting groups of carolers who cover scene changes and generally pop up throughout with songs of the season. Their harmonies are good and easily listenable. The numerous and varied locations required are well delineated in David Chudzynski’s multi-level set design and the changing atmospheres are equally well defined via Mark Abram-Copenhaver’s lighting design. Credit also must go to sound designer John Jung-Zimmerman who is responsible for, among other things, Marley’s menacingly sepulchral tones.

The cast handles their respective assignments very well, with special applause to Melton and Holody who sustain their characters with intelligence and emotion; to Roy Bronkema who is a sympathetic Bob Cratchett and a very jolly Fezziwig; and to Christmas Past (Natalie Rarick) and Present (Bill Johnson), both of whom had other roles in addition to creating ghostly apparitions, although I could easily have done without Johnson’s disgusting hygienics as pawnbroker Old Joe.

Just moving a cast of 31 around the stage is incredibly daunting. Director Jewel Abram-Copenhaver rises to the challenge with seasonably entertaining results.

“A CHRISTMAS CAROL: SCROOGE & MARLEY” plays evenings Wednesdays through Saturdays with Sunday matinees to Dec. 18. For performance times and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.