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Miracle on 34th Street

Santa Claus goes on trial in an uneven production of a Christmas classic

The three unionized elves are highlights of the show as they rally around Kris Kringle. Photo credit: Dennis K Photography

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As staged by Tacoma Little Theatre, Miracle on 34th Street's success will largely rest on one's emotional attachment the audience has with Christmas in general and Santa Claus in particular. Issues in tone and some uneven performances get in the way of this classic story, having been adapted from the beloved 1947 film, which found a kindly old man going to trial to prove that he's the real Santa Claus. This production, directed by Maria Valenzuela, struggles a bit in evoking the joyful feel of the original.

It must be said, though, that this is surprisingly difficult material to get across with the lightness and joviality that it needs. From the start of the play, it becomes clear that this story might not be ideally suited to smaller children, who may get bogged down in the jargon of competing department stores, talk of forcibly hospitalizing someone for their mental health, and holding a high profile trial in the lead-up to election season. By and large, the audience at my showing felt restless. The times when they came alive were during the looser, more holiday pageant-ish moments, as when choirs of little kids sang carols during brief interstitials.

The story, for the few that are unaware: Suddenly finding herself needing to replace Macy's in-store Santa, Doris (Nena Curley) stumbles across Kris Kringle (Michael Dresdner), an old man just released from a mental home who claims to be the real Santa Claus. Doris' daughter Susan (Mimosa Clyons) has been raised to not believe in fantastical things like Santa, but gets a push toward believing by Fred (Cannon Jones), a friendly lawyer who's falling for Doris. Kris Kringle's reluctance to shill Macy's products to kids makes him a sort of consumerist folk hero, uniting people in Christmas spirit but ultimately landing him in court, where his Santa-hood is called into question.

I attended opening night, so hopefully the cast will soon settle into their groove, but the first act felt like everyone onstage was rushing to get to the courtroom drama of act two, which the majority of the audience likely remembers the most about the source material. Still, there were bright spots to be found: Makayla Broxton, Mary Norton, and Jayda Slack were delightful as the elf union that rallies around Kringle; Curley supplies a sympathetic Doris, in what could easily be a thankless role; and Marion Read is hilarious as Mrs. Shellhammer. In the pivotal role of Kris Kringle, Dresdner does a serviceable job as a very matter-of-fact Santa, but doesn't quite radiate the sort of warmth necessary to get everyone rooting for him in an organic way.

This is more nuanced material than you'd find in a typical holiday extravaganza, so the importance of nailing the tone and creating a sense of wide-eyed wonder is heightened. TLT's production of Miracle on 34th Street doesn't hit all the notes, but I'd expect it to improve as its run gets closer to Christmas, when the holiday spirit gets more infectious.

Miracle on 34th Street, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through Dec. 24, $20-$24, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma, 253.272.2281, tacomalittletheatre.com

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