[Review] Miracle on 34th Street at The New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

When word spread that the popular BMOS Musical Theatre Company were taking on Christmas film favourite Miracle on 34th Street this November, regular BMOSsers and newbies alike will have enthusiastically booked tickets expecting a near-professional performance that would kick off the countdown to Christmas. Unfortunately, on this occasion, BMOS failed in their festivities, producing a long and problematic musical adaptation that lacked the festive spirit. ‘Sing anything and you’ll believe it’ is a recurring theme of the play, but, after this production, I still don’t think it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

The problem with this production is not in its cast, but in its source material. Meredith Wilson’s 1963 Broadway adaptation is outdated. The charming tale, most of us know and love from the 90s film starring Richard Attenborough, about a young non-believer who meets Kris Kringle at a Macy’s department store and starts, once again, to believe, is overshadowed in this performance by Fred Gaily’s self-indulgent attempts to connect with Doris Walker. Although the set is sometimes whimsical, the production still manages to suggest that the real spirit of Christmas is in being an unapologetic, all singing, all dancing, misogynist.

I don’t know what is worse, the fact that the play begins with a headstrong woman who tells her daughter they don’t need a man to be happy, only to spend three hours coming to the realisation that, actually, they do, or that every song the male lead sings seems to be patronizing and generalizing women. At one point, Fred Gaily (Matthew Collins) parades around the stage telling Doris (Jo Smith) she is a ‘little girl’ and, in ‘She Hadda Go Back’, presumes that all women are late because they have lost their gloves in their huge bags, or aren’t sure whether to put on a hat. Perhaps I’m being too serious about a light-hearted Christmas musical here, but I don’t understand why someone would choose to produce this adaptation now, with no alteration, especially to a family audience. What says ‘Happy Christmas’ better than introducing your daughters to the world of sexism?

The performance is not without pleasing moments, the Macy’s parade at the start of the show builds excitement as an array of dancers, marchers and baton twirlers take to the stage in turn. The clowns add a welcome bit of audience participation by stepping down into the stalls and throwing large, inflatable balls across the seats. The scene of a toyshop played out against a semi-transparent snow globe also brings a touch of magic to the show, as Willow (Susan Walker), starts to believe.

Jo Smith and Matthew Collins are strong leads as Dorris and Fred, despite the material given to them, and Willow Heath nails the whiny, stubborn child expression as Willow. Mark Shaun Walsh (Shellhammer) shows an unwavering dedication to his character and instigates many of the laughs of the performance, even if his shouting and bum wiggling start to grate by the end.

Equally, the many ensemble routines are well choreographed and entertaining and demonstrate Suzie Budd’s talent as both a director and choreographer. But the production is let down, again, by its length. As a musical it warrants its 2 hour 45 minutes running time, but you can’t help feeling there were some things that could have been cut – one of the ‘sexy Santa’ dance routines, for example, or the ‘My State, My Kansas’ number (a song about raining on wheat that adds little to the courtroom scene except suggest that one character in the show is from Kansas).

Add to this, some dodgy American accents, at times, mics that don’t always come on, a spot light that isn’t focussed and a few moments of silence after lines are missed or fluffed up, and you have the general idea. It saddens me to say that not even five minutes of fake snow falling from the sky in the encore can make this the festive, feel-good production it should have been.

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