Book, music and lyrics: Meredith Wilson
Choreography: Russell Smith and Philip Joel
Director: Max Reynolds
Reviewer: Luke Walker
With the Christmas markets already up and running in Manchester, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas … whether you like it or not, and with the arrival of Miracle on 34th Street at Manchester’s Opera House this week it may seem your festive jumper is closer to hand than you realised.
Based on the 1947 black and white classic, remade with Richard Attenborough in 1994, it is an alternative Christmas story that needs very little introduction. Hired as Santa Claus in Macy’s department store in New York, Kris Kringle (as he likes to be known) soon starts telling the children and parents that this year’s must-have toy can be bought at nearly half the price elsewhere in town at nearly half the price! On the verge of being fired he is saved by his boss, Doris Walker, who manages to convince R H Macy himself that such a publicity stunt could work to the store’s advantage. Putting customer satisfaction ahead of profits turns out not to be such a bad idea at all but then Kris Kringle’s true identity is scrutinised and he is forced to defend himself as the real Santa Claus in a court of law.
From the outset, this production feels a little old-fashioned. The first 10 minutes is an assault of how much can be thrown onstage and presented as downtown New York: marching bands, flag waving patriots and the hustle and bustle. Rather than the production drawing us into the world we are to invest in for the next couple of hours, there seems to be an air of falseness and ‘presentation’ that doesn’t help the audience to be particularly receptive. Over-the-top showmanship creates a wall between performer and audience that pervades the whole piece.
That said, this is not the fault of the performers who lunge into every set piece with commitment, gusto and big smiles. But with a book and music that offers little inspiration they are fighting an uphill battle. Written a long time ago, Meredith Wilson’s production desperately needs updating. The songs are repetitive and the dialogue flat. With a running time of nearly 70 minutes, the first half finally hits a plot point just before the interval with the questioning of Kris Kringle’s true identity.
On paper, the actor playing Kris Kringle (Danny Lane) looks like he has no chance carrying off the man in the big red suit. As a young, recent graduate it seems he can’t have the look or gravitas to portray the great man himself. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth with his Attenborough-esque demeanour. A deep, baritone voice to boot, he deserves his rôle as the star of the show. A very young looking Hannah Thompson plays the believing juvenile Susan Walker with business-type mother Doris Walker (Claire Hawkins) just about able to convince R H Macy (Michael Adams) not to fire Kris Kringle and believe in him instead.
One of the major faults in thisshow lies with the production values, especially of the music. Unfortunately, it sounds a little like the producers may have unwrapped a new Yahama keyboard last Christmas and decided to employ it for their musical. Feeling more like you may be in a grotto or Christmas-themed karaoke bar the synthesised backing tracks often drown out the onstage talent. With songs and dance routines that don’t progress the story, there is an audible gasp of relief during It’s Beginning To Feel A Lot Like Christmas and the festive jumpers can finally justify their outing.
While this production longs to harness the excitement of the days running up to Christmas, it feels a little more like those days in limbo between Christmas and New Year. While the heart of the tale has auniversal truth (would you prefer a lie that draws a smile or a truth that draws a tear?), the truth of this show is that it lacks the magic that made the film such a classic.
Runs until 25 November 25| Image: Darren Bell