Review: ‘Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

It doesn’t exactly live up to its billing as a miracle, but Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical at Toby’s Dinner Theatre has its heart in the right place. It is a lovely way to gather the family around one ringside table this holiday season for some actual live-in-the-moment theatrical fun.

It is based on the enduring 1947 Christmas movie, which probably needs no introduction. The germ of the story — about a man purporting to be the real Kris Kringle and changing the life and outlook of an unhappy single mom in New York — won Valentine Davies an Oscar.

Composer Meredith Willson, who was coming off a Broadway winning streak with The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, chose it as his next stage project in the early 1960s, resulting in the short-lived Here’s Love in 1963.

Now at Toby’s, the 2015 revision of that forgotten musical has gone back to the movie title and made other changes calculated to keep a modern audience engaged. It works only fitfully, though when it comes to the all-pro cast and production efforts by Director Shawn Kettering and crew, one can sum it up with Willson’s chosen title: Here’s Love.

Perhaps the show’s main strength is that it finally provides a central role for the wryly amusing Robert Biedermann as Kris Kringle. After a career in thankless supporting parts, he finally has a lead showcase for his folksy, grandfatherly charms.

Camden Lippert and Jeffrey Shankle. Photograph by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

While he’s not quite the Edwardian-era stickler for proper comportment that Edmund Gwenn was in the film, Biedermann is quite the lovable eccentric who may just turn out to be delusional…Not. Watching him arrive on a sleigh in full Santa regalia atop a Macy’s Parade float in a shower of confetti is guaranteed to make any child’s day.

Great singing and solid all-around performances by Heather Marie Beck and Jeffrey Shankle, two reliable Toby’s veterans, keep the story breezing along to that ultimate courtroom showdown over the question of Santa’s true identity.

Heather Marie Beck gives the entertainment its most lovely musical moments in her solos “You Don’t Know” and “Look, Little Girl.” Alas, her red wig is a distraction, as wigs often are in the intimate confines of Toby’s. Beck’s characterization of Doris Walker amounts to more of a wounded divorcee than the flinty hard-headedness of Maureen O’Hara in the movie.

The wonderful Jeffrey Shankle brings the character of Fred Gaily his full range of leading man grace and sparkle. His selling of “My Wish” and “Here’s Love” will likely breed new loyal customers. It’s not so easy to see what Fred’s motives are, however, and he strikes no romantic sparks in his courtship of the resistant Mrs. Walker.

Playing the little Susan Walker on press night was Camden Lippert, a winning young performer and another in Toby Orenstein’s long tradition of heart-stealing discoveries.

To further lift the drama, Director Shawn Kettering needs to bring more focus to the skepticism and resistance of all the lead characters. The mostly comical supporting cast is well chosen and suitably exaggerated to the point of burlesque.

Newcomer Tommy Malek makes beleaguered Macy’s executive Marvin Shellhammer a spurting fireplug of comical energies. Powerful Russell Sunday gives R.H. Macy an executive presence. And local favorite David Bosley-Reynolds anchors the plot-turns in solid portrayals of a presiding judge and a governor.

Choreographer Mark Minnick pulls off some lively dances and suggests whole festive parades with just a few well placed ensembles.

The Manhattan skyline environment by Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins as well as the props and set pieces lend just the right support to the colorful costumes and lighting of Lawrence B. Munsey and Lynn Joslin, respectively.

Tommy Malek and company. Photograph by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Music Director Douglas Lawler provides some of his own orchestrations for this rare revival. Under his direction, the live pit band remains an active and very welcome player at Toby’s.

Sound Designer Mark Smedley again keeps all the vocal energy in acoustical balance, though an obnoxious feedback hum marred some quiet scenes on opening night.

Meredith Willson has loaded his score with musical good will. That includes a little ditty he published back in 1951 by the title of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” You will hear it a couple of times here, and it is guaranteed to stick in your head for a good week or so after. Willson’s Miracle on 34th Street is as genial a holiday offering as one could want. Best of all, it’s in Columbia, Maryland, which means it’s just over the river and through the woods — one pleasant sleigh ride away.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hour and 30 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical plays through January 7, 2018, at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required. Call (410) 730-8311, or 800-88TOBYS, or purchase tickets through Ticketmaster.

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