If there is anything the holidays are built on, it is nostalgia. You may think music began with Nirvana, but you’ve heard Renaissance songs like “Greensleeves” and “The Holly and the Ivy.” You may never read Victorian literature, but you probably have a very good idea about the plot to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” And you may think those old black and white movies are for the birds, but you’ve seen holiday fare like “The Miracle on 34th Street” over the years - probably more than once.
Currently at Montgomery Playhouse there is a double dose of nostalgia. First, we get the holiday favorite “Miracle on 34th Street,” but not done as a stage play. This adaptation by George Seaton (who wrote and directed the classic 1947 movie) was for a live 1948 broadcast by the Lux Radio Theater, and the Playhouse recreates this broadcast on stage.
We see the actors with their scripts in hand at the microphones while all the radio business, including some imaginative sound effects, goes on in the background. It works for a number of reasons. While a holiday classic, the plot of “Miracle” is simple enough so that the mechanics of a live radio broadcast adds a further dimension to the story.
Plus doing a live stage version would be difficult: you would need a ton of actors and sets as we go from outdoor street parades to various department store locations to city apartments and finally a courtroom. Here nine actors take on all the roles, some taking multiple parts, in addition to providing the live sound effects and crowd noises.
In case you somehow missed all those reruns of “The Miracle on 34th Street” that occur endlessly on TV during the holiday season, it is all about a man who becomes a last minute Santa Claus replacement for Macy’s department store. Except this man claims to be the real Kris Kringle, and while he changes the lives of everyone around him, the question remains: is he the real deal or a little bit addled?
It goes all the way to the New York City courtroom, and the question is never fully resolved. However, a divorced mother and her young daughter, a romantically inclined next door neighbor, and several department store heads have their lives changed because of him. The science of psychology gets a few good knocks along the way and several comments about the United States Post Office seem hilarious these days, but the main story hasn’t aged a bit.
Adding to the fun is that this 1948 broadcast used several of the film actors on air. So we get to watch actor Bill Spitz play Hollywood actor Edmund Gwenn playing Kris Kringle as an adorable if at times crotchety old man. This was this role that won Gwenn his Academy Award. There is Kathryn Murphy Ryan portraying Maureen O’Hara as single mother Doris Walker, whose cynical exterior gradually fades as the events of the story progress. Then there is John van Eck as actor John Payne playing Fred Gailey as an idealistic young suitor who ends up taking the wacky case of proving Kris Kringle is for real.
Oddly, the film sports a very young Natalie Wood as young Susan Walker but Wood does not appear on the Lux radio broadcast. It does not matter, at the Playhouse Maya Gensler plays Susan as a young girl as skeptical as her mother, but is even quicker to thaw before her new friend.
A cast of five actors portray all the supporting roles and manage the various sound effects from doors closing to typewriters typing. It is hilarious to see grown adults suddenly speaking as a five year old kid standing in amazement seeing Santa Claus. One of the joys of watching the original film is that these supporting roles were played by a slew of veteran character actors, from Thelma Ritter as a shopper looking for a toy fire engine to William Frawley as adviser Charlie Halloran.
Director Bruce Hirsch, who also did the sound design, keeps it all simple and moving smoothly. The show is about 70 minutes without intermission. However, the script is broken down into four short acts, about 15 minutes apiece, with Lever Brothers radio commercials between acts. Those advertisements are included in the show and are both humorous and add to the nostalgic appeal. Be sure to take notes on how to use Lux soap for a special Christmas tree decoration.
Some shows based a live theatrical radio broadcasts get into very intricate effects – at the Arts Barns things are kept relatively simple. Other shows start developing subplots among the actors performing the show. Not here, as the focus is kept on the main story. It is short and simple and sweetly nostalgic, which is what we expect from most holiday fare.
“Miracle on 34th Street” continues at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn through December 21. For tickets, call the Arts Barn at (301) 258-6394. For more information, go to the Montgomery Playhouse web site at http://www.montgomeryplayhouse.org
Mocovox Entertainment Critic