“Miracle on 34th Street,” one of the classic films for the Christmas season, has been adapted as the Garfield Center’s annual holiday offering. Directed by Jim Landskroener, the play assembles a large cast to present this heart-warming story of how Santa can imbue even the most cynical among us with the true spirit of Christmas.
The 1947 movie on which the play is based won three academy awards, including “Best Original Story” by Valentine Davies and “Best Supporting Actor,” Edmund Gwynn, who plays Kris Kringle. And it was chosen in 2005 to become part of the Library of Congress National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” film.
The plot is the story of an elderly man who takes a job as a department store Santa Claus at Macy’s in New York City. But Kris Kringle, as he introduces himself, is not content to steer the children who come to see him toward the most profitable merchandise, as his supervisor instructs him. Rather, he does his best to see that they get what they really want — even if it means sending them to another store that carries the item at a lower price than Macy’s. This, of course, goes down very poorly with his supervisors, who warn him, and when he won’t cooperate, fire him.
But meanwhile, the owner of the store, learns that Macy’s is getting unusually favorable publicity because of the new Santa. He expresses his approval, leading the supervisors to reverse course and rehire him. But Kringle has aroused the enmity of Miss Sawyer, the store’s psychologist, who files a complaint that he has attacked her and tries to get him committed to an asylum. At this point, the play shifts to a courtroom scene, where Kringle is on trial for his mental competency. His attorney, Fred Gayley, decides to base his defense on the proposition that Kringle really is Santa Claus.
At the same time, there’s a warm love story running parallel to the Kris Kringle plot, with Fred Gayley trying to win over his neighbor Doris Walker, the Macy’s supervisor who hired Kringle. Fred has decided to let Kringle use his spare bedroom, so he sees a good deal of Doris after work hours. A disillusioned young divorcee, Doris is raising her daughter Susan not to believe in fairy tales or Santa Claus. But when Fred takes Susan to see Kris, her skepticism begins to waver. Eventually, the barriers begin to break down…
It’s a wonderful Christmas fantasy, with a nice love story woven into the plot, and a full quota of interesting characters. Director Jim Landskroener said before the Saturday performance that the script, written in the 1990s by Valentine Davies, was revised somewhat freely for the Garfield version, smoothing out some of the dialogue to feel more natural. Adapting a film script to live theater is always tricky; many things easily done on film are out of reach for even the most ambitious theatrical production, but Landskroener and crew have done a good job of making the story work on stage.
David Ryan is a delight as Kris Kringle, radiating warmth and good will. Ryan, pastor of Chestertown’s two Methodist churches, has become a valuable addition to the local theater scene, appearing at both the Garfield (“Mr. Roberts”) and Church Hill (“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”)
Natalie Lane plays Doris Walker, the Macy’s manager who initially hires Kringle. She does a nice job showing the character’s transition from distrust of emotions and skepticism about Santa to acceptance. A member of the Kent County Library staff, she previously appeared in “My Fair Lady.”
Izzie Southworth, making her acting debut here, plays Doris’s daughter Susan, who learns to trust her imagination under Kris’s prompting. She makes the character’s different moods come across clearly — well done.
Zac Ryan, whose previous GCA credits include “Mr. Roberts” and Short Attention Span Theater, plays Fred Gayley, a young lawyer who is in love with Susan. He believes in Kris almost from the beginning, and does his best to make sure the old fellow isn’t mistreated either by Macy’s management or by the legal system. A good job in a prominent part.
Diane Landskroener, one of the most versatile actors in local theater, is wonderful as Sawyer, deploying an appropriately grating New York accent and using body language to create the character. She’s hilarious!
Gil Rambach is convincing as Judge Harper, whose sense of justice is tempered by the need to get reelected. June Hall takes the role of Halloran, the judge’s campaign manager, who is appalled that he is sitting on a case that could require him to rule against Santa. And Mike Heffron does a nice job as Mara, the prosecuting attorney who discovers that he’s got a tougher case on his hands than he thought. And James Diggs is well cast as Dr. Pierce, who knows Kris from the hospital he’s lived in for a number of years.
The Macy’s elves — played by Ben Anthony, Thomas Martinez, Ellie Morton and Shane Saunders — double as stagehands and carry much of the comic energy of the scenes they appear in. They are especially funny when they give a dead-pan demonstration of the history of elvish “pranks,” culminating in the ever popular pie-in-the-face. Young audience members should especially enjoy these slapstick bits, while older theater-goers will be amused by their interplay with the Macy’s management as the elves try to defend Santa.
The play’s pace is sometimes a little slow, largely because of the number of scene changes. This, of course, is one of the complications of translating something from film — where such changes can appear instantly and almost effortlessly — to the stage, where things have to be physically moved into place in view of the audience. Using the elves as stagehands is a clever solution, adding a bit of fun as the elves scamper and romp while they reset the stage for the next scene. The lively Christmas music also adds to the holiday atmosphere.
The Garfield’s “Miracle on 34th Street” is a nice addition to a holiday season that has already hit high notes locally with the “Dickens of a Christmas” festival. It has the right mix of sentiment and comedy, delivered by a strong cast. Young theater-goers should find it engaging, and older audience members who know the movie are likely to find it a fresh re-interpretation of the story. Don’t miss it!
The show runs through Dec. 17. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8 p.m, and Sunday matinees begin at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for military and.seniors 65+, and $10 for students.
Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 410-810- 2060.