If Friday's 70 degree weather didn't exactly get me in the holiday mood, catching Rochester Association of Performing Arts' pleasant production of "Miracle on 34th Street" during the first significant snowfall of the season did the trick. With an energetic ensemble cast and a quartet of strong leading actors, audiences looking for worthwhile holiday entertainment will find it here.
Twice a major motion picture and featured on television in various iterations, the plot of "Miracle on 34th Street" is thoroughly woven into the fabric of our culture. Doris Walker -- a high-ranking manager at Macy's in New York City and single mom to the independent and precocious Susan -- has taught her daughter that Santa Claus is merely a myth and does not exist. This rational, although perhaps premature, lesson is turned on its head, however, when Doris hires a new Santa for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The man is convinced he is the real Kris Kringle. Susan subsequently meets Fred Gaily, a former Marine and aspiring lawyer who hopes to inspire in the child a belief in Santa Claus.
Of course, the viability of this musical adaptation depends entirely on its cast. Fortunately, RAPA's production (now in its second year as an annual holiday tradition) succeeds. Paige Kiefner is well-suited to the role of the confident yet cynical Doris. And although the character is rather two-dimensional, Kiefner makes the most of the material. Her voice has an ideal modern Broadway tone, and it's effortless without being coated in extraneous vibrato.
Lance Hoffman is an appropriately debonair and good-hearted Fred Gaily, although he too is handcuffed by poor writing (although for largely different reasons -- more on that later). Hoffman also has an excellent rapport with Danica Simpson, who was perfectly cast as Susan.
Billy DeMetsenaere is every bit the warm and magically charismatic Kris Kringle that fans of the movies have come to expect. And the musical boasts the excellent comedic performance of Kyle Critelli as Doris's assistant, Marvin Shellhammer.
While the show's performances are great, it's not without reservations. Most of them, however, are no fault of the performers. The major caveats pertain to the musical as it was written by Meredith Wilson -- the artist behind that singular sensation "The Music Man" -- who penned the music, lyrics, and the book.
The music of "Miracle on 34th Street" is unfortunately forgettable. If I were pressed, I couldn't recall the melodies from what were arguably the musical's bigger songs, like "Here's Love" and "That Man Over There," which are delightful and endearing ensemble numbers in the moment but don't leave an impact.
The inherent sexism in Wilson's script and song lyrics -- which were penned in the early 60's -- really can't be ignored either. When tensions arise during Doris and Fred's first meeting, a song entitled "Listen, Little Girl" and its preceding dialogue are nothing more than tired, old-fashioned mansplaining. When faced with a particularly mean and malicious psychologist employed by Macy's to give "personality tests," even Kringle loses his cool: "There's only one way to deal with a woman like you," he says while rapping his cane menacingly against the nearby desk." Vague threats of violence -- not cool.
"Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical" is an enjoyable production you may well wish to experience with your family. But if you do, a heart-to-heart talk about flaws in Meredith Wilson's dated, once-acceptable script is recommended.
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