The word “hope” in capital letters greeted theatergoers Saturday at the Bangor Opera House where the first live performance in 20 months was staged.
Projected in white letters on the opulent new teal curtain, the word represented what got the staff at the Penobscot Theatre Company and its supporters through the coronavirus pandemic and its continuing aftermath, Executive Director Jen Shepard, who took the helm of the professional stage company last summer, told the opening-night audience.
Hope also is the theme of “Miracle on 34th Street, A Live Musical Radio Play,” the opening show of the company’s 48th season. PTC presented a similar production based on the holiday film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in 2015. For decades, the company performed Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in December but switched to musicals about 10 years ago.
This year’s holiday show is based on the 1947 movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” in which a man who claims to be Kris Kringle and works as Santa Claus at Macy’s Department Store in New York City is proven to be the real deal. There’s a romance, a business rivalry and a doubting girl who is transformed into a true believer.
“Miracle,” the play and the film, aren’t as well written as either version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which was released in 1946. The characters in “Miracle on 34th Street” aren’t as intriguing, the plot is not as complex and there isn’t an angel trying to earn his wings.
Shepard directed this season’s holiday show with a deft hand, casting talented actors, local and from away, to create a tight ensemble. The cast and crew energetically embraced the spirit of a live radio play complete with big microphones, flashing applause signs, commercial jingles for local businesses, a live band and a Foley artist making sound effects on stage.
The show’s biggest flaw was the placement of high school student Sophia Steadman as the Foley artist upstage where it was hard for the audience to see all the things she used to create the sounds of slamming doors, closing windows, pouring coffee, a pounding gavel and a fiddle. Few area theatergoers have had the opportunity to see sound effects being made, so moving her downstage would have let the audience in on more of that stage secret.
The heart of “Miracle on 34th Street” is, of course, Kris Kringle. Ben Laymen gives the character a calming warmth and kind demeanor, the exact opposite of his role in PTC’s last live holiday show when his schoolmistress Miss Agatha Trunchbull personified meanness in “Matilda, the Musical.”
It was hard to recognize Layman under all of those fluffy, white whiskers as Kringle.
The soul of the show belongs to Brenna T. Converse as Susan Walker. An eighth grader at Bucksport Middle School, she exudes a wisdom beyond her years as the girl who wants a home for her family more than anything else. Converse was a natural on stage and held her own with the professional and more experienced actors. The joy she showed as Susan discovered how to use her imagination was infectious.
Grace Livingston-Kramer plays a variety of roles but she nearly steals the show every time she picks up a cigar, bows her legs and becomes R.H. Macy, owner of the famous New York City department store. Her cartoon-like portrayal of the mogul was funny and fun to watch, especially when he must shake hands with his business rival Gimbel.
Jazmin Gorsline, Reggie Whitehead, both from out of state, along with local actors Ira Kramer and Heather Astbury-Libby round out the case. Gorsline and Kramer are convincingly sweet as Doris Walker, Susan’s mother, and Fred Gailey, her neighbor, who fall in love trying to save Kris Kringle.
“Miracle on 34th Street, A Live Musical Radio Play” was adapted from the 1947 Lux Radio Broadcast by Lance Arthur Smith. The original songs and arrangements are by Jon Lorenz. It was commissioned and first performed by the San Diego Musical Theatre six years ago. Those who are unfamiliar with the plot of the film and how radio was broadcast with live audiences may find the plot a bit hard to follow.
The design team of Sean McClelland, set designer, Scout Hough, lighting designer, Neil E. Graham, sound designer, Kevin Jacob Koski, costume designer, and Meredith R. Perry, property and Foley designer, created a colorful and fun atmosphere that allowed the actors to move easily and convince the audience it really was part of a radio broadcast.
The band with Larrance Fingerhut on piano, Tommy Libby on drums and percussion and Jean G. Pocius Dorismond on brass never missed a beat. The players’ jazzy interpretations of Christmas carols were delightfully inventive.
Whether theatergoers leave the show filled with hope or not depends on what they need from live theater after such a long, unwelcome hiatus. This theatergoer preferred the “hell is other people” theme of Some Theatre Company’s “No Exit” to the sanguine and hopeful tale of whether Santa Claus is a real person or not.
However, most audiences will be grateful for the hope the show offers.
“Miracle on 34th Street, A Live Musical Radio Play” will run through Dec. 26. Proof of vaccination for COVID-19 or a recent negative test is required and masks must be worn throughout the performance. For more information call 942-3333 or visit https://www.penobscottheatre.org.