`Here's Love' a charming treat

Composer-lyricist not at his best, but a heartwarming story makes for fine show


December 15, 2006|By William Hyder | William Hyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Timed to the holiday season, Here's Love, a musical version of the movie Miracle on 34th Street, is running through Jan. 14 at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

Miracle was one of the big hits of 1947. With the advent of television, it became a classic that showed up on home screens every Christmas. Someone was bound to turn it into a musical.

Meredith Willson made his mark on Broadway by writing the book, music and lyrics of The Music Man (1957) and supplying music and lyrics for Richard Morris's The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960). He came up with Here's Love in 1967.

The story is basically that of the film: A bearded, genial old man calling himself Kriss Kringle is hired to play Santa Claus at Macy's department store in New York. When children ask for toys Macy's doesn't carry, he obligingly directs their parents to the stores that can supply them.

Claiming that he is Santa Claus, Kringle declares that love is more important than commercial gain. The flap this idea causes among Macy's management quickly escalates into a citywide sensation.

Kringle's boss at Macy's is a cynical single mother named Doris Walker. Having been deserted by her husband at the birth of their daughter, Susan, she has raised the child to reject all fantasy and illusion - even a belief in Santa Claus.

This attitude doesn't sit well with Fred Gailey, a former Marine, beginning lawyer and dedicated bachelor. He befriends the lonely little girl at Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, takes her places when her mother is too busy and tries to put some make-believe into her life.

Naturally, Doris and Fred quarrel violently about the right way to raise Susan, and naturally they fall in love. Meanwhile, Macy's in-house psychologist pronounces Kringle psychotic and recommends he be committed.

The second act is devoted to the committal hearing - at which, as everyone who has seen the movie knows, Kringle is confirmed as the real Santa Claus, the two lovers are united and little Susan gains a father figure.

Debra Buonaccorsi is appropriately steely as Doris and Jeffrey Shankle turns on his abundant charm as Fred. Both get plenty of opportunity to display their fine singing voices.

Susan has a lot of lines to speak and a lot of music to sing. Eight-year-old Bailey Gabrish handles it all easily.

The show revolves around the character of Kris Kringle, who gets a solid and convincing portrayal by Buddy Piccolino.

The role of R.H. Macy, a small one in the film, is more prominent in the stage version. It gives Russell Sunday, usually seen as a leading man, a chance to use his considerable vocal and dramatic talents in a character role.

Good comic portraits are created by Darren McDonnell as a bumbling junior executive and Matt Johnson as a maladjusted psychologist.

In the courtroom scenes, Shawn Kettering is effective as a hard-nosed district attorney, Jerry Gietka makes an impressive judge and Dave Guy is properly canny as the backroom politician who convinces his honor that declaring Santa Claus insane before the whole world wouldn't be a good career move.

The composer-lyricist who gave us "Seventy-Six Trombones" and "Till There Was You" is not at his best in Here's Love. Willson's score offers only one memorable song: "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas."

It doesn't matter. Director Shawn Kettering and choreographer Amanda Tschirgi give the show a lively and colorful production at Toby's, and the strong, heartwarming story puts it over the top.

Costume designer Georgette Feldman uses the fantasy and parade scenes as an opportunity to put an array of imaginative costumes on the stage: animals, fairy-tale characters, toy soldiers, a lifesize jack-in-the-box, a clockwork figure, and on and on.

Following the film version, Feldman dresses her real-life characters in the styles of the late 1940s. One quick comment, though: The script makes a big point of the fact that Fred has just been discharged from the Marine Corps. He really shouldn't make his first entrance in the uniform of a U.S. Army officer.

Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents Here's Love through Jan. 14. Evenings: Doors open 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Matinees: Doors open 10:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required. Information or reservations: 410-730-8311 or 1-800-888-6297.

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