Meredith Willson’s ‘Miracle on 34th Street The Musical’ onstage at St. Augustineâ€™s Limelight Theatre
By Bob Feldheim
If you have any recollection of the 1947 movie,â€Miracle on 34th Street,â€ itâ€™s probably as warm and whimsical, uplifting holiday fare. It starred genial Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle who, as Macyâ€™s Santa Claus, genuinely believed he was the real thing, and took on the cynics.
His support team consisted of Maureen Oâ€™Hara as single-mom-Macyâ€™s-executive Doris Walker, who hired him; Natalie Wood as Dorisâ€™ precocious 6-year old daughter, Susan; and John Payne as recently-retired-Marine-captain and now next-door-neighbor-lawyer-and-aspiring-lover, Fred Gaily. It was the most beloved holiday movie of the 20th century. Running time: 94 minutes.
Meredith Willson of “Music Man” fame entered the picture in 1963, when he added music and lyrics — notably the now-perennial holiday favorite â€œItâ€™s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmasâ€â€” and brought â€œMiracle on 34th Street The Musicalâ€ to Broadway. He expanded the book to two acts, 24 scenes, 49 musical numbers, and aÂ cast of more than 40. Running time, including a 15-minute intermission: 2-1/2 hours.
All this as background to impress you with the courage and derring-do of Limelight Theatreâ€™s Executive Director, Beth Lambert, in booking this expanded â€œMiracleâ€ as the Limelightâ€™s holiday fare, through January 4. Itâ€™s likely that no other community theatre in the region has the wherewithal â€“ facilities, resources, talent and dedication — to attempt it.
Shelli Long directed, and also serves as music director and keyboard player leading a six-piece, off-stage band.
The key to the playâ€™s success is the cast.
I doubt that anyone could play the Kris Kringle role with as much charm and conviction as naturally white-haired and bearded Don Runk. His stage presence, command and unerring delivery of script and song are phenomenal. Heâ€™s added yet another star to his already impressive resume.
Maria Helfrich, who made her Limelight debut last year as the beleaguered mother of the â€œBad Seed,â€ stars as Doris. Here, she has the opportunity to display her musical talent, singing beautifully, while guiding her daughter, holding down a challenging executive position, and managing a budding romance.
Two talented youngsters alternate in the key role of Susan. Nine-year-old Gracia Romaine was dynamite in the performance I saw â€“ perfectly at ease, bold, dynamic,Â delivering her lines forcefully,Â humorously when called for. She also performs a bit of ballet with ease and grace. I can only wish for her a stage (and screen?) career to match Natalie Woodsâ€™. (Iâ€™m afraid that I canâ€™t comment on her alternate, 11-year old McKenna â€œMackâ€ Hazel; Iâ€™m sure sheâ€™s as wondrous.)
Jonathan Leonard makes his Limelight debut as Fred. Heâ€™s strikingly handsome in his dress Marine uniform, and then, in civies, heâ€™s determined to win Dorisâ€™ affection, representing Kris Kringle in court.
Micah Laird, a recent Flagler College grad, is made to look like a fall-down, blithering idiot as Macyâ€™s retail manager, Marvin Shellhammer â€“ particularly when, tone pipe in hand, he rehearses his retail crew on pushing sales of flexible toy alligators he mistakenly ordered.
As R.H. Macy himself, James â€œDezâ€ Desmond, a giant of a man seen in five recent Limelight productions, is pompous, thick-skulled and unapproachable (at first), using a foot-long unlighted cigar as a prop. But in the closing moments of Act 2, he transforms himself almost miraculously into a lovable, happy fella, singing â€œMy State, My Kansasâ€ in his effort to persuade the judge to declare Kris Kringle genuine.
Thereâ€™s an ensemble of eight spirited youngsters who dance, cavort, sing, gather ’round, sometimes as clowns, doing handstands, flips, walking on hands, anything to amuse.
Behind every Limelight production is a beautifully conceived Tom Fallon set, masterfully executed by Domenic and Nancy Grasso. Here, itâ€™s Herald Square, with Macyâ€™s at center, Gimbels to the side. (For those unfamiliar with the Manhattan street grid, 34th Street at Herald Square was the location of the flagship stores of these two major rival chains â€” on opposite corners. Gimbels went out of business in 1987.) To accommodate the many scene change requirements, prop crews hustled continually on the darkened stage.
Hats off to all who contributed to this resounding success. The audience â€“ including the many children — loved it, as did I.
The Limelight is located at 11 Mission Ave., uptown St. Augustine. Call 904-825-1164 or go to limelight-theatre.org.