It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, MD and that’s because their current production is Miracle on 34th Street, the musical based on the holiday classic film of the same name. Interestingly, this version of the show written by Meredith Willson (The Music Man) was originally titled Here’s Love when it played on Broadway in 1963 (and the Willson connection explains one song that sounds very much like the classic “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man).
If you’re not familiar with the story (and there have been four filmed adaptations of the book upon with the story is based) it goes a little something like this: a man sporting a white beard sees a drunken Santa Claus on the day of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Macy’s events director Doris Walker finds herself in a bind without a Santa to close the parade but the gentleman in front of her was so convincing that she though he was her Santa, so she hires him on the spot not only for the parade but for the store as well.
The man, who claims his name is Kris Kringle, meets Doris’ young daughter Susan who promptly tells him she doesn’t believe in anything she can’t see, hear, feel or touch and she knows Santa isn’t real because her mother hires a new Santa every year. The Walters’ next door neighbor Fred Gailey, an aspiring lawyer who has befriended Susan, also doesn’t buy the man’s story until after a few minutes with Kringle, Susan calls him “Uncle Fred.” As Christmas approaches and shoppers encounter the new Macy’s Santa, he surprises many of them by suggesting they go to rival Gimbel’s for any item they can’t find at Macy’s. Kringle is nearly fired for what Mr. Macy sees as a financial disaster but the notion of spreading love at Christmas brings more shoppers to Macy’s … and even Gimbel’s jumps on the bandwagon. But after failing a mandatory psychological evaluation, the man claiming to be the real Santa Claus is put on trial to determine if he’s a danger to society. It’s up to Fred to take on his first legal case to prove his client is Santa and save Christmas.
As we’ve come to expect from Toby’s Dinner Theatre, they have produced another entertaining production that should put you in the mood for the holidays. Director Shawn Kettering works some magic in Toby’s “in the round” performance space and even stages a mini-version of the Macy’s parade that kicks off the show in the small space. Choreographer Mark Minnick puts everyone through their paces and keeps every corner of the theatre in mind. It’s got to be a real challenge for everyone to be constantly but subtly turning during a performance to make sure everyone in the audience gets to see more than just the backs of the actors. Lawrence B. Munsey’s costumes are also nicely done and appropriate for the time period of the 1940s. Everything else from production design to hair and makeup are also top notch.
The cast is also terrific, from the smaller ensemble players (who take on several different roles throughout the show) to the main cast members. Heather Marie Beck is perfection as Doris. She could really be an unlikable character with her tough professional exterior, not to mention her trust issues with men, but she adores her daughter (even though she’s made her a mini version of herself) and goes through a profound change over the course of the show, and Beck makes it totally believable. She also has a lovely voice that shoes off her talent and training, knowing how to reign it in for the space and not overpower everyone.
Two young actresses alternate in the role of Susan, and at our performance we were treated to Camden Lippert (Lilianna Robinson is the alternating Susan) who gave a very natural performance. Some child actors have a tendency to overdo it, but Lippert’s performance was authentic especially as she went from skeptic to believer. Toby’s regular Jeffrey Shankle probably has one of the toughest roles as Fred, due mainly to the script’s cringeworthy, but reflective of the era, plot points and he deserves a lot of credit for never coming off as creepy. Russell Sunday, who made such an impression buried under a ton of makeup in Toby’s production of Beauty and the Beast is a delight as R.H. Macy, and gets a real showstopping number in the second act.
But Miracle on 34th Street lives and dies on its Santa Claus and Toby’s is blessed to have their very own Santa in residence. Robert Biedermann 125, who also does the pre-show warm up, welcome and birthday announcements with a lot of warmth and humor, IS Santa Claus, plain and simple. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Biedermann is just Santa’s stage name, and if he can’t make you believe he’s Santa and put you in the holiday spirit then you’re just an old Scrooge. I loved his sparkly red suit and I wanted to hug him after the show. I do believe, I do, I do, I do!
Before the show begins, Toby’s also has a full buffet meal, including a salad bar, with everything from green beans to mac and cheese, pork loin medallions, stuffed chicken breast, broiled fish, steamed shrimp and a carving station with ham, turkey and beef. And there’s dessert plus a make your own sundae bar. And every show has a specialty drink, and this show’s drink is called the Kringle, a pink concoction of blended strawberries and cream that can be spiced up for the adults in the room with a little vanilla vodka. It is yummy.
If you’re looking for something different to do for the holidays, you can’t go wrong with Miracle on 34th Street at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. But make your reservations now as this is one of their shorter running shows, playing just through January 7, 2018. You can purchase tickets now through our link below. Enjoy the show and we wish you all a very happy holiday!
Miracle on 34th Street runs about 2 hours 30 minutes with one twenty minute intermission. Note that fog, haze and strobe effects may be used in this production.