By Colin Douglas
Although we’re still dealing with COVID-19, BrightSide Theatre is back, seems to have things under control, and has energized the Chicagoland holiday scene with Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Radio Play, a cleverly written and performed, well, radio play. Based on both the Valentine Davies novel and the classic film starring Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood, we must resume that hearty holiday debate: “Is there really a Santa Claus?”
It’s 1947, and Doris Walker (Christie Coran), in charge of organizing Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, discovers at the last minute that she has to replace her Santa Claus. She fortuitously runs into an elderly gentleman (Jim Heatherly) — named Kris Kringle, at that — and she hires on the spot. He’s so kind and convincing that she’s persuaded to keep him on as Macy’s official Jolly Ol’ Elf, though his sense of fantasy — and his unerring insistence that he is the real Santa Claus — threatens to undermine the pragmatism she’s instilled in her young daughter Susan (Sara Deodhar). Suddenly, Fred Gailey (Robert McDonough), Doris’ neighbor and newfound lawyer friend, finds himself defending Mr. Kringle’s authenticity in a New York court of law
Adapted by Lance Arthur Smith from a 1947 Lux Radio Broadcast script, Miracle features both original music by Jon Lorenz (cute if basically forgettable) and a slew of authentic commercial jingles of the day, not to mention traditional Christmas carols, all arranged in close vocal harmony. The sheer simplicity of this piece, presented by a gifted ensemble of earnest and likable actor/singers who hold prop scripts, makes for a welcome departure from other holiday fare. (Music direction is by Rex Meyer, who also provides the lively onstage piano accompaniment.)
Director Jeffrey Cass does a crackerjack job, staging his cast around the four floor microphones and keeping the pace, and all nicely nestled in Barry Norton’s functional yet beautiful scenic design. Ruby Lowe’s lighting keeps the mood festive and the overhead APPLAUSE sign lit when needed. And Shana Hall’s period costumes are, as always, absolutely appropriate for the story.
Each of the seven actors, playing a fictional radio performer is playing a character (or, often, more than one) in the holiday story, is well-cast and terrifically talented. Though an ensemble piece, Christie Coran is perhaps the shining star of this production, bringing an honest and layered portrayal of Doris, and as an incredibly talented vocalist, to boot. But sharing the stage: Robert McDonough makes a handsome, likable Fred Gailey, and also doubles as Mr. Gimbel, Mr. Macy’s longstanding rival. And Sara Deodhar’s Susan is dead-on in her jadedness, realist daughter.
Sean Rhead is quite wonderful as the emcee Alex Mialdo, adding his voice to the choral numbers and jangling an arsenal of props to create the live sound effects. Scott Kelley and Katy Grocholski are impressive as the male and female Character Actors of the play. But the story belongs to veteran Chicago actor Jim Heatherly as Kris Kringle. His unaffected portrayal of the man who would be Santa is one of his finest performances and will bring a tear to your eye.
Miracle on 34th Street is a classic for a reason: it’s for the young and young-at-heart, and it also offers a positive message about believing in our better nature. Thanks to Mr. Cass’ fine casting and direction, as well as the collaborative efforts of this talented cast and crew, Chicagoland has a unique production that’s bound to become a new holiday favorite. If, before this show, you didn’t believe in Santa Claus, you will now.
Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play runs through December 19 at Meiley-Swallow Hall at North Central College, 31 S. Ellsworth, Naperville, IL.
For tickets or more information, please call (630) 447-8497 or visit brightsidetheatre.com.