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Town Theatre brings ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ alive

Town Theatre has a knack for breathing new life into classic theatre. In its 99th season, the nation’s oldest consecutively running theatre selected Miracle on 34th Street to celebrate the holidays.  And to make it even more delightful, they’ve elected to do a musical version.

Miracle on 34th Street is a familiar story, but one that is intriguing to look at through a 2017 lens.  Doris Walker (a role shared by Cortlin Collins and Megan Douthitt) is abandoned by her husband after she gives birth to her daughter, Susan (a role that is also shared, by Juliet Gregg and Ella Harman).  The play starts years later; Doris is a successful executive at Macy’s in New York City, and Susan is a savvy child who states she doesn’t believe in anything she “can’t see, smell, hear, taste, or touch.”  That includes Prince Charming and Santa Claus.

Enter two men determined to prove the Walker women wrong.  The first is the alleged Kris Kringle himself (played by a very jolly Bobby Rogers) and the second is Fred Gaily (Joel Yarbrough).  It is difficult to watch a character like Fred Gaily in 2017; he stomps about the stage, hurling out insults at other characters, namely Doris, who is the object of both his lust and his contempt.  He threatens at one point to punch her in the nose, then seconds later roughly grabs her and kisses her; Doris leaves the scene shaken and upset, then sings a reprise of his song “Look Little Girl” and retreats back into her home.  It’s bizarre to imagine this story was once considered quite romantic. The audience at Town Theatre’s Sunday matinee performance let out wildly emotive gasps when Doris smacked Fred across the face–but it was hard to tell if the audience was shocked, disgusted, or just plain happy to see Fred get slapped.

Luckily, the Town’s production of Miracle on 34th Street does its hardest to stay away from the uncomfortable themes of the Fred/Doris storyline. Instead, the audience is treated to extended performances by an ensemble of talented child and teen performers, including ballerinas, tap-dancers, clowns, and dancing dolls.  It’s as adorable as it sounds, and even a heart of steel will find it hard to resist some of the cuteness of this cast.  With the play beginning at the Macy’s day parade and including a fantasy scene of a circus-like birthday party for Susan, the costumes, music, and cast maintained the festive dancing atmosphere for its nearly three-hour duration.

In this Sunday’s matinee, Ella Hartman stole the show as young Susan Walker.  She had all the fascination and excitement a child would be expected to have in a Christmas production, but she also bore the maturity and poise that a daughter of Doris Walker should. In his supporting role as Mr. R.H. Macy, seasoned Town Theatre veteran Bill Dewitt gave a performance evocative of a 1940s film, nailing the accent and demeanor of that time.  He was an absolute treat to watch as he turned from gruff company owner to the dancing, crowd-inciting lead of the tune “That Man Over There.”

Town Theatre is a staple of the arts community in Columbia, and it is always a delight to watch how they revive old material for new audiences.  The production’s lead song, “Here’s Love,” was a gorgeous sentiment that struck as much of a chord today as it likely did in the 1940s.  “Here’s Love” was the play’s standout moment, as the entire cast joined together to sing and dance an upbeat call for compassion and humanity during the holidays.

Miracle on 34th Street has two more weeks of productions left, with shows running every Thursday through Sunday until Dec. 17.  For a schedule of times or to buy tickets, visit the Town Theatre’s website.

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