November is a tad early for me to get my festive feeling on, but the New Alex Theatre convince me to get my baubles out to attend the press night of the musical production of the classic Miracle on 34th Street performed by the BMOS Musical Theatre Company. I also get to bring Ma Lee along. Ma Lee would celebrate Christmas 365 days a year if she could so this is definitely not to early for her to get into the Christmas spirit. Or spirits.
Disclaimer: We were invited guests of New Alexandra Theatre and Brum Bloggers. Show tickets, welcome drinks and gift bags were all complementary.
The Piano Bar has undergone something of a makeover since last time we were here, and is an elegant setting for pre show drinks. Ma Lee and I are first to arrive, and we’re treated to the warm hospitality of the theatre staff, and a choice of suitably festive drink options and accompanying piano and carols.
We have dress circle seats, on the aisle and there is a pretty snow globe with the words “Believe” on the curtain. So far, so festive. The curtain comes up. And then comes the show.
Now, my judgement may be clouded by the fact that Miracle on 34th Street is one of my favourite Christmas movies. I love the updated 1994 version; however this stage version is much more faithful to the original 1947 film. Neither version are musicals; however a Broadway show, with music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, snappily entitled “Here’s Love” was produced in 1963 and this is the version of the show that we are here to see tonight.
Only, the songs aren’t very good. There’s a couple of ensemble numbers which are fun: the aforementioned “Here’s Love” which takes place on the toy floor at Macys; and “That Man Over There” in the first of the courtroom numbers are highlights, as is the familiar refrain of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas”. But to those more familiar with the 1994 film, a number of the songs seem completely out of context, in particular the second half “My State, My Kansas” which appears to be largely about the potential collapse of the judge’s political career – something we have not been introduced to previously, and frankly I don’t care about.
There is also a greater focus on the relationship between Doris and Fred, which leads to a couple of cringe-worthy numbers as they explore their hatred for other before realising that they are in fact madly in love. Strangely, nothing is made of the fact that Doris’ young daughter Susan has clearly never been advised of “stranger danger” and cavorts around with “Uncle Fred” allowing him to buy her balloons, take her to see Santa Claus and sing her a love song. Odd.
The cast therefore don’t have the best source material to work with. If this had been a straight play, à la the films, and not a musical, then the slightly cheesy script and OTT performances could probably have been excused. For me though, the songs were a distraction from what is essentially an interesting storyline about cynicism, greed and the commercialisation of Christmas, and unfortunately they were not performed particularly well, with even the cast seeming a little embarrassed as times. There were also a few staging issues, with microphones dropping out, forgotten lines, a sticky door to “Fred’s apartment” and a spotlight which seemed to wander away from the action on more than one occasion.
It’s not all negative. Willow Heath, tonight’s Susan Walker was a joy to watch, with the right balance of cuteness and precociousness. Jo Smith who plays Doris has a wonderful voice, and I would certainly like to see her in a role where the songs can do her voice justice. Stepping into the Santa suit is Stewart Keiller as Kris Kringle, who – to paraphrase “That Man Over There” has a suitable “crinkle on the bridge of his nose” and a “twinkle of his toes”. It’s a huge cast, and credit has to go to the Stage Manager and his team for a seamless transition between scenes. And I was very pleased to see a very realistic snowfall dusting both the stage and the audience at the final scene – no Christmas show is complete without a fake snowfall.
Whilst this particular production didn’t blow my socks off, I recognise the hard work that goes into pulling off a show like this, particularly for an amateur musical theatre company such as BMOS, and for that I applaud everyone involved. And thanks to the snow, the candy canes in the gift-bag and the earworm of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” I certainly left the theatre in a more festive mood than when I entered.
Miracle on 34th Street is playing at Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre until Saturday 18th November 2017. BMOS return to the Alex in June 2018 with their production of Hello Dolly. For more information about BMOS, you can find their website here
Official promo photos by Ariane Photography Studio