Our Gang Performing ‘Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical’

Meredith Willson Puts His Own Spin on Christmas Classic
Nov 28, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

The Our Gang Players will perform a Christmas classic, “Miracle on 34th Street,” at 7 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, Dec. 1 and 2, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 3, at the Stafford Township Arts Center in Manahawkin. Actually, Our Gang will perform “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical.”

Although it, like a couple of other stage versions, is based on the 1947 movie, it features a book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, best known for “The Music Man.” Interestingly, in order to differentiate his musical from other “Miracle on 34th Streets” out there, Willson originally called his show “Here’s Love” when it debuted on Broadway in 1963.

Willson’s touches can be found everywhere. The show includes one of the composer’s biggest hits, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which was actually written years before the musical and is counter-pointed by another song, “Pine Cones and Holly Berries,” in duet fashion. And despite his decades of work in Hollywood and on Broadway, Willson, who was born in Mason City, Iowa, never forgot his Midwestern roots. They led to “The Music Man” being set in the Hawkeye State and are also responsible for a song, “My State, My Kansas,” rather surprisingly popping up in “Miracle,” a show set in New York City.

And the show, unlike the movie that was set in 1947, is set in 1963, as demonstrated by short appearances by then-New York City Mayor “Bob” (Robert F. Wagner Jr., played by Ray Faleska)) and New York State Gov. “Nelson” (Rockefeller, played by Lou Monaco).

Still, Willson’s version fairly closely follows the movie’s storyline. A just-mustered-out-of-the-service U.S. Marine officer and aspiring attorney Fred Gayley (Glenn Parker) meets a next-door neighbor, 6-year-old Susan Walker (Ryleigh Mcdonald), and invites her to join him to take in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

Aha – another Midwestern moment. It is highly unlikely that a 6-year-old would walk away with a stranger in the Big Apple, even in 1963, even if he is a neighbor! Maybe in Iowa, maybe in Kansas, but in NYC, never. Then again, Susan Walker is no ordinary 6-year-old. She calls her mother by her name, not “mom.” She reads The New York Times. Finally, the super-precocious little girl definitely does not believe in Santa Claus:

FRED: You know you want to see Santy Claus.

SUSAN: My mother and I don’t believe in Santy Claus.

FRED: What is your old lady, a witch?

SUSAN: My old lady works at Macy’s and she hires Santy Claus every year for two dollars an hour!

Her mother, Doris Walker (Lindsey Monaco), is no ordinary woman of the early 1960s, either. She’s a career-driven senior executive at Macy’s who has no time in her life for men. After all, her husband was a “reprobate” who walked out on his little family the day Susan was born. Doris has taught her daughter not only not to believe in Santa Claus, but to not wait for a Prince Charming as well.

So Fred and Doris should be like oil and water, right? Come on, this is a Broadway musical from the 1960s! You know a love story has to develop. You just don’t know if it will work out and, more importantly, how it will work out.

Meanwhile, over at Macy’s …

Marvin Shellhammer (Cory Damato) is a scheming but blundering junior executive with a senior-level problem. He mistakenly ordered 7,000 plastic alligators that he somehow has to dump off on the public. But an even bigger problem for him is literally right down the street.

Doris, who along with Shellhammer is in charge of the Macy’s Parade, pulls a kindly looking gentleman from off the street to replace an obviously drunken Santa Claus in the holiday spectacular’s sleigh of honor. Impressed with his performance, they decide to hire him on the spot as the store’s Santa.

Little do they know that the kindly looking gentleman, Kris Kringle (Jon Voinski), will soon be directing customers to other stores, even the arch-rival Gimbel’s, if Macy’s doesn’t have an item a shopper is looking for.

Needless to say, R.H. Macy is not impressed and wants Kringle immediately fired. But Doris convinces him that Macy’s can score big with a campaign that “places public service ahead of profits” and shows that it is “the store with a heart.”

Sure enough, Macy’s makes more money than ever before. Problem solved.

However, other quagmires soon loom. Susan sees Kringle talking to a little Dutch orphan (Ally Voinski) – in Dutch – and a crack appears in her once solid anti-Santa wall. Susan is also becoming friendlier and friendlier with Fred, seeing the father figure she never had, something that doesn’t make Doris happy.

Enter the store’s bitter psychologist, Mrs. Sawyer (Sara Targett), who finds out that Kringle believes he really is Santa Claus and recommends he be sent to the loony bin.

Shellhammer, Doris and even Macy don’t want to lose their best Santa ever, not after offering him a lifetime contract. But District Attorney Thomas Mara Sr. (Neil Goldstein) thinks he has an open and shut case for commitment, and Judge Group (Lisa Jones) tends to agree. Political boss Tammany O’Halloran (Targett in a second role) warns Group she’ll never get re-elected to the bench if she packs off Santa Claus to an asylum, but the judge is a stickler for the law.

How can Fred, who is acting at Kringle’s attorney, possibly save the day? After all, it is his first ever case. And, as he admits, “all those tests and reports boil down to this: Mr. Kringle is not sane because he believes he’s Santa Claus,” something Judge Group agrees is “an entirely logical assumption.”

Fred tries every trick he can think of. He calls Macy to the stand, figuring a business giant might have some pull with the judge. He surprises the court by calling Thomas Mara to the stand – Thomas Mara Jr. (Zachary Ciappa), who testifies that he is sure that there really is a Santa Claus “because my Daddy told me so.”

Nothing is working, though, and when he starts rambling that “the Post Office Department was created by the Second Continental Congress of July 26, 1776” and that “the first Postmaster General was Benjamin Franklin,” courtroom spectators, D.A. Mara and Judge Group wonder what he possibly can be talking about.

Will Judge Group really have to rule “No Virginia, there is no Santa Claus”? Will Fred’s loss sour Doris on him again? Will Susan never get the house, and, indirectly, the stepfather she wants for Christmas?

You’ll have to check out the show to find out, a show that is probably better than the other versions of “Miracle” out there, just as Kringle is better than “the many other Santas everywhere,” thanks to Willson’s music. It isn’t his finest musical – that honor has to go to “The Music Man” – but his score is head and shoulders above the insipid competition and well-performed by live musicians led by musical director Joe Sramaty.

Plus, if Christmas really is about the children, then Our Gang’s production fits the bill. Not only will children enjoy the show, but it features a two-dozen-plus ensemble of kids (along with a similarly sized adult chorus), directed and choreographed by longtime Our Gang director and performer Jessica O’Brien.

Tickets for “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical” are $18 for adults, $15 for seniors and students and $10 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at ourgang.org, by phone at 609-597-0553 or at the door. 

— Rick Mellerup

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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