By Charles J. Morgan
With perfect timing, “Miracle on 34th Street — The Musical” arrived at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport last weekend to usher in the holidays. When the playbill tells you that the book, lyrics and music were all done by Meredith Willson of “The Music Man” fame, one knows that they are in for some solid musical theater entertainment. And so it was with this effort, attempting to prove there really was a Santa Claus, lifting it all from what could have evolved into crass, sentimental claptrap up to a paean to the goodness and the true warmth of Christmas.
Direction was in the hands of Richard T. Dolce who is also production director of the Engeman. His talents were, as usual, quite evident in blocking done smoothly, and interpretation, making the characters into individuals.
Dolce made the female lead Susan Walker, played by Meaghan Marie McInnes, the secular positivist, devoid of emotion, unbeliever, into the loving, caring mother and equally loving woman opposite ex-Marine Fred Gaily, handled neatly by Aaron Ramey. The innate talents of both in acting and singing shone through brightly. The complementarity of his near-lyrical tenor and her plangent soprano coalesced not merely musically but also intimately … despite a slapped face from her and a stolen kiss by him. The two were the jeweled bearing that the whole story turned on.
Then there was Kris Kringle played handily by Kevin McGuire. Fully bearded, avuncular, outgoing, knowledgeable … he even sings in Dutch! He never relents in proclaiming himself to be Santa Claus. His singing voice was a powerful tenor. Matt Wolpe plays Marvin Shellhammer, the officious climber. He is perfectly styled as the pushy “idea” man who thinks up the marketing plan to sell plastic alligators as a Xmas sale only to be rebuffed by R.H. Macy who threatens to fire him because he had fired Kris who was telling customers to buy at Gimbels or FAO Schwartz. Macy is handled by Bill Nolte, gruffly but efficiently, the image of the impervious CEO.
The Ensemble was based on the “platoon” system, the Red and Green crew. On opening night, the Red crew was on and the ubiquitous Antoinette DiPietropolo, one of the most talented choreographers in town, wrought her ever present terpsichorean magic.
Music had David Caldwell on keyboard directing with Brian Schatz on reeds; the indefatigable Joe Boardman on trumpet; Frank Hall and Paul Sieb on trombones; Russell Brown on bass; and the rock solid Josh Endlich on percussion. This outfit revealed (again) a range of skills that has marked the success of many other Engeman productions.
Musical numbers such as “Plastic Alligators” by Shellhammer and his clerks was piercingly funny. Kris Kringle’s “Here’s Love with McInnes” with Ramey and the Ensemble was practically the signature number of the show. Your scribe was deeply impressed with “She Hadda Come Back” by Ramey and three of his card-playing buddies in Act II but was bowled over with laughter by “My State, My Kansas” by Macy, Shellhammer, Nick Addeo, Todd Thurston as a judge and Kim Carson as a legal secretary. It was a vaudeville quartet plus one and done in a courtroom. Certified hilarious.
Staging and lighting were under the direction of Stephen Dobay and Jimmy Lawlor, whose integration of the know-how pulled together all the elements of what made the “miracle” of this show.
Er, one more thing. Your scribe referred to Kris singing in Dutch. Please let him express himself in the only Dutch expression he knows: Gelukkig Kerstfest (Merry Christmas).
The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Miracle on 34th Street — The Musical” through Jan. 3, 2016. Tickets range from $69 to $74. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.