N.Y. / REGION | THEATER | LONG ISLAND
By AILEEN JACOBSONNOV. 27, 2015
When the show now known as “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical” had its Broadway premiere in 1963, it was called “Here’s Love,” and received reviews that varied wildly, including a rather dismissive one from The New York Times (“right off the assembly line, shrewdly engineered,” the critic Howard Taubman wrote).
The mixed reviews are understandable, because this musical by Meredith Willson — who also wrote “The Music Man,” a splendid work — is itself a combination of delightful moments and dull ones. It is full of scenes and songs that don’t quite mesh, contributing to abrupt mood swings throughout the show.
Richard T. Dolce, the producing artistic director at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport and director of this production, has managed, with the help of an engaging cast, to ultimately turn it into an enjoyable mess. Mr. Willson’s adaptation of the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street” is far livelier and filled with more surprises than a different version, by Douglas M. Smith and Vernon L. Stefanic, presented by the Engeman in 2009 (though that one had a talented cast, too).
Aaron Ramey, as Fred, with Sophia Eleni Kekllas, who also plays Susan. Credit Michael DeCristofaro
The story — by Valentine Davies, who won an Academy Award for it — focuses on a man who goes by the name Kris Kringle and claims to be Santa Claus, and his interactions with a girl named Susan Walker and her mother, Doris, who works for Macy’s and hires the kindly Kris as the store’s Santa. Also in the mix is Fred Gaily, who befriends Susan and woos Doris while sparring with her over her hard-edge view of the world, inspired by a bitter divorce.
The musical veers from the children’s-show exuberance of the opening number, “Big Ca-lown Balloons,” during which Kris and a gaggle of youngsters march into the audience, to the seriousness of “You Don’t Know,” an adult ballad about disappointment that shifts the musical’s tone radically when Doris sings it in Scene 2. By Scene 3, the show has returned to the jolly family-musical category, with an ensemble of clerks singing about the virtues of plastic alligators.
Echoes of “The Music Man” can be heard in that opening tune, which recalls the marching beat of “76 Trombones.” Mr. Willson used other devices employed in “The Music Man” here too, including quick patter and multiple-part harmonies. These touches serve the show well, as does the small band under the musical direction of David Caldwell. Many of the songs are pleasing, including the metronome-like “My Wish,” a duet by Fred and Susan as the girl sits on a swing. (What a grown man is doing in a playground with a little girl, without her mother’s knowledge, is not an issue in this musical, set in a presumably-more-innocent 1963.)
Sophia and Kim Carson, as Doris. Credit Michael DeCristofaro
“Pinecones and Holly Berries” is a jaunty tune that is interwoven with “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which Mr. Willson wrote in 1951 but included here. A couple of silly songs that could easily seem hokey — “That Man Over There,” referring to Kringle, and “My State, My Kansas,” an attempt to butter up a judge from that state — are unexpectedly appealing.
The judge figures into the second act, which, as fans of the film are likely to surmise, centers on the trial at which Fred tries to keep Kris out of Bellevue Hospital by proving that he is indeed the real Santa Claus.
The set by Stephen Dobay, lit by Jimmy Lawlor, is cleverly versatile, and Kathleen Doyle’s costume designs add cheer.
The production is fortunate to have Kim Carson, who has a fine voice and a gentle but strong manner, playing Doris. Ms. Carson has appeared in similar feisty-romantic roles at the Engeman, including Marian in “The Music Man.” Meaghan Marie McInnes (who alternates with Sophia Eleni Kekllas) is a winning Susan: sweet, unaffected and a good singer. Kevin McGuire, as Kris, is another convincing actor and good singer, as is Aaron Ramey as Fred.
Helping to make the show twinkle are some quirky actors in secondary roles, notably Matt Wolpe as Marvin Shellhammer, the nervous head of the Macy’s toy department, and Bill Nolte as a blustery R. H. Macy, a character almost as mythical as Santa, since the real Mr. Macy died in 1877.
“Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical,” with book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, based on the 1947 movie, is running through Jan. 3 at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main Street. Information: 631-261-2900 or engemantheater.com.
A version of this article appears in print on November 29, 2015, on page LI9 of the New York edition with the headline: Believing in Santa, and Singing About It. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe