Miracle on 34th Street

“How do you turn a 1947 Radio Show into a glorious, joy-filled, uplifting evening of theater that boosts holiday spirits (and just spirits in general) and makes everyone happy to be part of the human race? Just put it into Yoh Theatre director Marcia Bender’s hands. Add a whole cast of talented and radiant Yoh players and a community of children, teenagers and adults working together and you have it. The whole production is so much more than the sum of each wonderful part. It was splendid, indeed.

This version of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ was adapted from the original radio show by Lance Arthur Smith and delightfully interspersed with music by Jon Lorenz. The music is both original character-driven music to enhance the plot and 1940s-style versions of Christmas classics, peppered with jingles like those of the radio commercials of the 1940s era.

And the music was stunning. At the heart it was the Train Wreck Quintet, comprised of Zac Cannon, Anna Hepler, Ted Krawczyk, Sam Leggett, and Haley Symonds. These five sang in between each short dramatic sketch. They were a sparkling, musically sophisticated group that every bit looked and sang like a forties quintet and very much carried the show. The individual voices were strong and smooth and the group sounded beautifully blended, especially on those close forties-style harmonies.

And then there was and additional group of five strong voices who occasionally joined the quintet, making up a dectet of totally appealing, focused, and enchanting young people with an amazing sound. These were Hailey Berrio, Riley Chynoweth, Maria Sell, Cerri Wimett, and Aria Yuengling.

The original script called for only seven actors who played multiple roles (as actors in radio shows did, using different voices for each role). Ms. Bender’s vision to expand this into a full scale musical with a bunch of elementary school children, a whole cast of middle and high school students and other community people were pure genius. In addition to the radio show, the set included levels of ‘rooms’ where we could see families and other groups listening to (and sometimes reacting to) the radio show. These families sang along with the chorus numbers, sometimes appeared on stage, and provided action (though not at all distracting) that gave a visual satisfaction to offset the stationary actors behind their microphones. The boys in the families came down into the audience dressed as newsboys and hawked their newspapers to the audience during the song ‘Headline News.’

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (I hadn’t), the script centers around a little girl, Susan (played by Lucy Drebitko with remarkable finesse and an excellent voice). Her mother, Doris Walker, a Macy’s executive (played by Alivia Salls) has brought her up to know truth from fantasy in a no-nonsense approach to life as an effort to shield her from disappointment. Consequently, Susan does not believe in Santa Claus.

After the Macy’s day parade in which the Santa who was hired by Macy’s was drunk, the department store hired a new Santa. He was a resident of a local home who quietly maintained that his name was Kris Kringle and that he was, indeed, the real thing. Abner Schlabach in this role was charming. He didn’t appear to be the traditional Santa. He was slight of build and his bear wasn’t snow white and bushy, but you know folks, it was a radio show. Nevertheless, he had a twinkle in his eye and an understated demeanor that everyone fell in love with. We all adored him and he did an amazing job in his role. Schlabach is a Barnard resident whose grandson was on the season-winning football team.

So then, enter the hero. Kris Kringle sees each little child, as is the job of the Macy’s Santa does, and in the process tells parents that they might find particular toys that Macy’s lacks or better prices at other New York stories, such as Gimbals. Fred, played by Ted Krawczyk, is a Macy’s lawyer who at first defends Macy’s policies and then becomes a believer. He is enchanted with Doris, despite Doris’s skepticism, because Doris is a good person. This duo is so remarkably played by teens that it is hard to believe this is not an adult performance. They are convincing in their portrayal of falling in live (of course it is easier in a radio program because there is no physical contact) and the emotional quality in their voices carries across the radio to be so convincing that the audience is caught up in it. The sing strongly and well, although the night I saw it Alivia had laryngitis and couldn’t sing.

Of course it all works out. Susan has formed a relationship with Kris Kringle and he delivers on a promise despite almost being incarcerated for pretending to be Santa.

In the meantime, we have seen some wonderful theater. Notable among mentions is Eve Cole, who plays the drunken Santa and also Macy and Gimbel. She is hilarious. Her timing is impeccable and her delivery over the top. Celia Burrington and Ella Ballou play the announcers to sound just as radio announcers sounded back then. Ella deserves a special mention because when Alivia lost her voice, she filled in, singing Alivia’s solos as though she had been doing them the whole time.

Also noteworthy were Riley Chynoweth in the dual role of Shellhammer and Thomas Mara and Carolyn Leibly, who did three roles as the nurse, Mrs. Mara, and the postman. Every single person on that stage was remarkable There were just too many to mention.

But this kind of community, this kind of production, and this kind of talent right here among us is the meaning of the season. We are so fortunate. This is the real thing.”