December 4, 2020
Timeless message resonates in fresh new look at Miracle on 34th Street
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
Through the initial agonizing months following the premature dropping of the curtain in March on their exceptional musical, Singin in the Rain, the Des Moines Community Playhouse has steadfastly kept its mission as its guiding light. They developed innovative ways to share performances with their audiences. Playhouse on the Air Presents Miracle on 34th Street is another feather in their creative cap. A dynamic cast, great direction, and captivating visual appeal unite to deliver a holiday performance feast just waiting to be devoured by culturally hungry patrons.
COVID has wreaked a devious havoc on the arts, yet creative forces are redefining themselves during these times. The Playhouse tradition of a Holiday Show was not to be denied. Considering the Playhouse staff’s ability to connect and deliver to their audiences, people sometimes overlook the fact that each member of the staff also has their own talents, their own creative muses. Executive Director David Kilpatrick flexes his creative muscles by adapting the 1947 book by Valentine Davies into a captivating stage play, with a delightful twist. Its audience is transported to the golden era of radio, becoming a live broadcast audience when the performance is “transmitted” to thousands of unseen homes. Visions of families gathered around their radios, transfixed by the story unfolding, add to Kilpatrick’s innovative concept. Carrying that extra imaginative layer into the theatre when watching this production gives it even more meaning.
Miracle on 34th Street was quickly snapped up by 20th Century Fox, becoming a timeless cinematic tradition for generations. If you have become a bit timeworn from repeated airings of this film, this show will invigorate you and return you to when you first fell in love with the story. Kilpatrick takes us into the world of suspended disbelief, where the Foley artists (Susan and Jerry Eisenhour as Ethyl Malleus and Tommy Pinna) layer hundreds of telltale sounds into the dialogue, giving the audience an auditory layering of this captivating story. Director Kay Merriman keeps the pace brisk, whisking from scene to scene, character to character with refreshing energy.
Each cast member plays at least two characters, and there is no confusion thanks to exceptional vocal definition. Maggie Schmitt masterfully captures the no-nonsense nonbeliever, Doris Walker, to a “T”, yet giving her role a beautiful arc as she transforms through the story. Her daughter, Susan Walker, is imbued with a delightfully precocious and irresistibly charming personality thanks to the talents of young Vivian Rosalie Coleman. With affable sagacity, Dan Chase brings a Kris Kringle to the stage that has its own appeal, yet true to the role. As attorney and burgeoning love interest to Doris, Adam Bielgard radiates an easy-going nature with his Peter Carey, providing excellent give-and-take balance to the mother, daughter and Kringle. Melanie R. Hall brings a binding presence with her Narrator, which was wonderfully written to deliver enough connective information without wandering too far into the land of exposition.
Two of the show’s performance workhorses are the voice artists who bring a wealth of variety and exuberance to the range of characters they portray. Adam Patrick Fast (Rod Rhymer, Voice Artist) and Preshia Paulding (Samantha Terrance, Voice Artist) are the ornaments on this performance holiday tree, decorating the show with a display of well-defined roles. Fast and Paulding channel the masters of that era, when what the radio listener heard had to be spot on. Each nailed their various roles delightfully, with richly textured nuances and delivery.
It may sound odd to praise the costuming for a radio show, but Angela Lampe provided a sweeping and elegant wardrobe palette that reflected how special it was to be part of the live radio audience experience. While the playbill doesn’t credit a scenic designer, the spare, yet evocative, stage setting provided that environmental element that welcomed the audience into WDMP station’s studio.
The action takes place without intermission, although there are a couple of “station breaks” to promote the “sponsors.” These commercial breaks give a nice jolt of comic relief. There is unevenness with some of the sound, which likely will be corrected for the rest of this wonderful run through December 20. This is a show that will rekindle the conversation about what Christmas should be about, and give each of us a renewed appreciation for this classic story.
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