MIRACLE ON 34TH STREETA play from the novel by Valentine Davis
Adapted by Patricia De Benedetto Snyder, Will Severin and John Vreeke
Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players
Director - Jay A. Cornils
Assistant Director - Alan Meadows
Producer - Corlis Cornils
Stage Manager - Chris and Sheila Shirley
Properties - Laura Gutzman
Set Designer/Builder - Jay Cornils, Andrew Barrus
Costumes - Stacey Blanton
Sound - Brian Anderson
Lighting Design - Alan Meadows
Scenic Artist - Shannon Loose
Kris Kringle - Barry Swindall
Doris Walker - Staci Cook
Fred Gailey - Travis Cook
Susan Walker - Kayden Moore
Shellhammer - Marcie Allison
Sawyer - Stacey Blanton
Miss Adams - Kylie London
Alfred - Gregory Hooper
Judge Harper/Gimbel - Robert Houston
Dr. Pierce/Mr. Mara - Nathan Harper
R.H. Macy - Delmar Dolbier
Maryka - Rose Peterson
Maryka's Mother/Mrs. Harper - Judy Houston
Mrs. Mara / Mother #1 - Jennifer Moore
Bailiff / Mother #3 - Laura Gutzman
Mother #2 / Dr. Rodgers - Emily Pierce
Osgood - Jesse Ashcraft
Charlie - Jay A. Cornils
Photographer - Corlis Cornils
Children - Timmy Wright, Erin Shirley, Emma Shirley,
William Blanton, Otha Blanton
Elves - Chloe Wright, Jessie Anderson, Cheyenna Briggs,
Reviewed Performance: 12/3/2011
Reviewed by Bonnie K. Daman, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
For the moment I actually feel the way Kris Kringle feels in Valentine Davis' novel Miracle on 34th Street when he says, "Christmas isn't just a day, it's a frame of mind ... and that's what's been changing". It's an inspiring story about finding joy and renewing faith, one that impacts generations upon generations. No matter why or how you celebrate the holidays, it reminds me that we all need a little of Davis' Kris Kringle in our lives.
Miracle on 34th Street, as presented by The Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players, is the story of Santa Claus coming to New York. It's the 1940's and Macy's department store is in full holiday swing readying for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. After discovering that the hired Santa is intoxicated, Kris Kringle expresses his disapproval to the event coordinator, Doris Walker, whose immediate solution is to hire Kris for the job. Kringle quickly becomes a success as the new Santa Claus and is hired to continue the job throughout the holidays.
Though his methods are odd and could possibly bring Macy's to ruin, Kringle wins over the shoppers and staff including the big boss R.H. Macy. On a surprise visit, Doris' friend Fred Gailey brings her skeptic daughter Susan to meet Kringle who insists that he is the one true Santa Claus. Through a series of miscommunications and power hungry individuals, Kringle is hospitalized in a mental institution. His only chance of redemption is in the hands of the New York court system with the question on everyone's mind: Is there a Santa Claus?
Carnegie celebrates roughly one year in their new facility at the Cleburne Conference Center after relocating from the Layland Museum in Cleburne Town Square. The center is state of the art and provides more than three times the space from which they expanded. While Carnegie is able to offer new comfortable and modern surroundings, it's not without its faults including having to share the conference center; this particular evening being host to a wedding as well as a Christmas party.
In no way does it reflect on the theater or this review, but imagine trying to sit and enjoy a show while the reverberations of bass-heavy techno music pound through the walls from the conference room next door. It does speak volumes to the tech and sound crew as they are more than adept at managing the volume within the theater so that nothing on stage is missed. A few sound cues are jolted or looped but it's possible the interruptions from any parties next door have some effect. Sound Designer Brian Anderson adds a small selection of holiday music to round out any transitions, and the actors take some liberties of incorporating the songs into their scenes.
The set design by Jay Cornils, also Carnegie's Director for Miracle, and Andrew Barrus is an assembly of moveable pieces that fit together at all angles like a puzzle and can be rotated to adjust for any scene. When all put together the set becomes the courtroom for Act II, and can easily break apart, rotating a few pieces 180 degrees to turn into the Walker's apartment and so on. Under the coordination of Stage Managers Chris and Sheila Shirley, the cast and stage crew work tirelessly to change the scenes in and out. Only in Act II when the scenes shift to or from the courtroom is there a longer pause between set changes that could be tightened up more. Without a curtain drop, cast and crew are in full view of the audience and the scene change feels frantic, but the impact of having the full courtroom is worth it.
For the amount of changes with a traveling set, Alan Meadows' lighting design is lined up accurately and the lights hit their mark. Meadows also switches to a manual spotlight giving mobility to certain characters when acting far downstage.
Stacey Blanton's costumes are a textbook array of 1940's textiles, colors and styles. A few standout pieces, such as Shellhammer's blue and white polka dot dress, Susan's cape and her black and white saddle shoes, really pop out from onstage. Hairstyles and makeup are also in line with the era and complete the look, specifically for the women, with the exception of Doris Walker whose hairstyle appears to age her character more than necessary.
As this is my first visit to the Cleburne Conference Center, my overall impression of the facility and Carnegie's ability to collaborate in their new space is one of awe over how much the theater now has to offer its audiences. After working in such a small space for years prior, some parts of the production feel swallowed up by the amount of space and technologies available, such as the larger scale back drops and curtains, but I sense that Carnegie is still growing and learning how to completely utilize their new stage. It will surely be something amazing to see once fully realized.
As Director, Jay Cornils really takes the opportunity and time to give focus to the many aspects of this story outside the plot revolving around Doris and Susan Walker. The story of Miracle on 34th Street is about more than this little family finding faith and hope but also about the other lives that Kris Kringle is able to touch. Cornils gives each of these characters a voice, and by the end of Act II we see the trail of good deeds and inspiration that follow after Kringle.
Leading the cast is the jolly man of the Christmas holiday himself, the real Kris Kringle ? according to Carnegie Players. Parents with young children who may want to keep the belief in Santa alive will be pleased to find that the illusion of St. Nick remains intact for this production. You won't find a hint of evidence to discredit his identity which (if I had kids who believed in Santa) keeps the holiday imagination 100% child-proof. That being said, I am truly confident I will not be devastating any Column readers by revealing that the Santa Claus on stage is secretly an actor in disguise.
So for the sake of giving credit where credit is due, the man behind the red suit is veteran Carnegie actor Barry Swindall. Swindall is far from the average "photo-op" Santa, and his candid portrayal of Kringle is uplifting. He has a natural quality to his work, such as Kringle's walk, his boisterous laugh and a gift for connecting with the youngest cast members.
There are two scenes in particular that exemplify Swindall's ability to convey the magic of Kris Kringle. They equally strengthen the idea that Miracle on 34th Street is not only centered on how one family's life is changed but how many people come to know, love and be heartened by this singular man. The first is a scene that barely takes up half a page in the script but the interaction between Kringle and Maryke, a little Dutch girl, warms you at the heart. The moment between Swindall and Rose Peterson as Maryke is brief but it opens your eyes to the universality of Santa Claus and his acceptance by children all over the world.
The second scene is a dialogue between Kringle and Alfred, played by Gregory Hooper, a distraught young man working at Macy's. It's not so much the content and outcome of the scene that I recall this specific moment, but because of Swindall's instant camaraderie and earnest care for the boy, almost like Kringle has a gravitational pull for others in need. Swindall carries the burden and the joy of the role and gives a genuine performance.
Delmar Dolbier as the ornery R.H. Macy provides another highlight performance of the night. Dolbier steers the audience through bits and pieces of the storyline acting as narrator, and slipping back into the scene to play his part with ease. As Macy, Dolbier creates a nice balance between his identity as a business mogul in the corporate world and a surprisingly down to earth gentleman with a sense of humor, mischievousness and a childlike disposition.
As Doris Walker, Staci Cook is a good match for her counterparts, and her scenes with Swindall specifically are the most telling about her character. At times Mrs. Cook's defiance to her daughter's imaginations and Kringle's admissions is too subtle to set precedence for Walker's limited beliefs. She has an affectionate moment in Act II when she signs her daughter's letter to Santa, signifying her own growing faith in Kringle. It's a tender scene but one that can have more impact on the audience if we see an even bigger transition from her earlier mindset.
The mother/daughter dynamic between Doris Walker and Susan Walker, played by Kayden Moore, is less prevalent in the stage production than what I thought would be scripted, and it cuts the amount of time the actors have to establish their relationship onstage. Aside from one or two moments, the scenes between Cook and Moore feel rushed, and their connection with each other is not as strong. If this is based partly on Cornils' direction, due to Ms. Walker's practical approach to raising her daughter, then I see the effort being made. Again, the actors' actions only need to be more defined one way or the other.
The opposite however, can be said about the chemistry between Moore and Travis Cook as Fred Gailey, and of course the natural attraction between the Cooks. Gailey completes the Walker family unit in more ways than one and Mr. Cook certainly fits the bill, becoming a centrifugal force that holds almost everything and everyone he loves together.
Moore and Cook are pleasant to watch as they interact and build a friendship and Moore especially seems to forget that she is "acting" when paired in a scene with Cook. Not only does he bring out something special in her but also in the budding romance between Gailey and Ms. Walker. Although Mr. and Mrs. Cook already have chemistry offstage, the couple exudes an underlying awareness and passion for each other that shines onstage.
Miracle has a plethora of one-off characters to round out the cast, two of which are played by Marci Allison and Stacey Blanton. As Mrs. Shellhammer, Allison is certainly a showstopper. She catches your eye with her zany reactions and witty commentary, and certainly has a leading lady quality about her. Blanton puts on a flamboyant act as the arrogant, theatrically-inclined Sawyer. Personally I am not one for the over-dramatic physical comedy but Blanton surely gets the audience in stitches. Both characters are typically male roles but Cornils makes it work with the help of these two talented ladies.
It's a large cast of characters with many roles that I could call out, but overall it is evident this team of actors love what they do and take pride in their show. If you're already in the holiday mood or need help to get there, Carnegie and their production of Miracle on 34th Street is bursting at the seams with Christmas cheer. Don't forget to stay for pictures with the one and only Santa Claus.
The Greater Carnegie Cleburne Players
The Community Performing Arts Center
Cleburne Conference Center, 1501 Henderson St, Cleburne, X 76033
Performing thru December 18th
Friday and Saturdays @ 7:30pm, Sundays @ 2:30pm
Tickets prices range from $8-12
For information and tickets call 1.817.645.9255