Chemainus Theatre Festival’s production of Miracle on 34th Street is as warm and comfortable as an old pair of slippers.
And so it should be: this timeless story of the triumph of imagination is a wonderful buffer against the incursion of Christmas carols before [Canadian] Thanksgiving, Boxing Week sales in the middle of summer, and all the other sad ways that the magic is being drained out of a special holiday.
This adaptation by Caleb Marshall, who was in the audience on opening night Nov. 15, has modernized some aspects of the play, and reduced a long story to a reasonable size for presentation at Chemainus. And all without sacrificing any of its enduring charm.
We still spend plenty of time with Kris Kringle (portrayed by Hal Kerbes), Susan Walker (Kaia Russell when we saw the show), and her mother Doris (Michelle Morris), the ever cheerful Fred Gailey (Abraham Asto), and all the crowd connected with Macy’s store during the pre-Christmas season.
The principal actors provide a strong foundation that keeps everyone focused on a story that requires many set changes. Kerbes is wonderful as Santa Claus, warm and quirky: a delight for his many fans.
Morris manages the tough job of keeping Doris from being just hard-boiled. We get to see that she’s been hurt and is protecting herself with a carefully built shell and a sharp pair of eyebrows. Asto, making his debut at Chemainus with this production, offers her an unquenchable Fred that she finds hard to resist. And Russell’s presentation of Susan was just right: the touch of acid that’s rubbed off from her mother not quite hiding the hopes of every child that there is really magic out there.
The other actors in this cast are quite a group of quick-change artists. From Brett Harris, who morphs from Macy’s clean-up man to a district attorney with adroit zest, to Jan Wood, who swings from being a trusted second in command to Doris at Macy’s to a superior court judge with aplomb, and Mallory James who can switch from a drunken old woman to a bright young stenographer in a flash, they all score big time on keeping this train on the track.
A special mention has to go to Tim Dixon and Matthew Hendrickson. They not only carry four or even five roles each, but are a delightful comedy duo as Macy and Gimbel. Watch for them.
Set designer Carolyn Rapanos and costume designer Michelle Lieffertz have combined to mount and dress this show appropriately but sparely so that the audience is entirely focused on the characters, who carry this heartwarming story to its expected but still very welcome conclusion.
Miracle on 34th Street runs until Dec. 29. Tickets will make great Christmas gifts. Call the box office at 1-800-565-7738 or visit chemainustheatre.ca online and book those seats now.