Tom Minion grew a real white beard to play the role of a department-store Santa Claus in the CNY Playhouse production of “Miracle on 34th Street,” running through Dec. 22 at ShoppingTown Mall. (photo by Amelia Beamish)
There are plenty of nice things about CNY Playhouse’s current production of “Miracle on 34th Street” — and a few things naughty.
At the top of the nice list is actor Tom Minion, who won a 2018 Syracuse Area Local Theater Award for his recent portrayal of Richard Nixon, and grew a real white beard to take on an even more daunting role: Kris Kringle, the man who believes himself to be the real Santa Claus.
And Minion’s acting effectively characterizes Kringle as charming and cheerful yet strong-willed and outspoken. This Santa Claus is a mix of tenderness and toughness.
At the top of the naughty list is a set by Christopher Lupia that looks like it was tossed together at the last minute with dollar-store decorations. Supposedly depicting a modern-day Macy’s, Santa’s throne area looks more like a decades-old social hall basement bedecked in cheap and chintzy metallic-twist garlands and foil tinsel wreaths.
A few characters sport cell phones, but there are no computers or other screen devices to be seen in a Macy’s manager’s office. Instead, an archaic rolodex sits on the actual desktop.
But let’s accentuate the positive.
While the set design, props and costumes remain inexplicably dull in this shiniest of seasons, at least Minion’s Santa suit is top-shelf. The fire-engine red velvet coat and pants are trimmed with white fur and accompanied by black leather boots and belt fastened with a big, gold buckle. Minion wears white gloves and rimless spectacles to complete the iconic image.
In this play based on the 1947 film version starring Edmund Gwenn as jolly old St. Nick, Minion enjoys solid support from leading players and the ensemble, including several cute kids, four mischievous Macy’s elves and several talented character actors.
Korrie Taylor nails the officious and authoritarian single-mom Doris Walker, the department store executive who forbids her 6-year-old daughter, Susan, to harbor illusions about mythical figures like Santa Claus. Abel Searor plays Doris’s next-door neighbor, Fred Gayley, who has other ideas and carries a torch for Susan’s disbelieving mom.
Fred stirs the action by taking Susan to visit Santa Claus at Macy’s where Doris works. Doris is unimpressed, but it turns out that Macy’s Kris Kringle may, in fact, be the real Santa. Slowly but surely, Susan — energetically played by 9-year-old Amelia Frick in her first-ever stage appearance — begins to believe.
Unfortunately, Doris, her staff and state authorities engineer Kringle’s commitment to Bellevue, and a court case ensues in which Fred manages to prove that his client is not insane.
The courtroom set is no better than the Macy’s design, as white-washed walls remain mostly barren with an undersized Great Seal of the State of New York hanging above the judge’s head, a cabeza larger than the seal itself. And the first step leading up to the judge’s bench remains chipped, just as it was in the Santa set.
Another minor complaint: many of the performers both young and old failed to project on opening night, and much of the dialogue remained unintelligible.
On the other hand, several cast members in minor roles really hit their marks.
Cortland actor Bill Lee swiftly achieves his character arc as store owner R.H. Macy goes from gruff to gleeful interacting with Fayetteville’s sharp Jim Sharples as Mr. Bloomingdale. And the aptly named Ann Sweet appears as the sweet-as-pie Dr. Pierce.
Actress Hinda Crewell excels in two roles, a rich lady impressed that Kringle sends Macy’s customers to snag deals at competing stores and as Halloran, political advisor to Judge Harper, portrayed by the stately Jim Molloy. Crewell brings a rare verisimilitude to these small parts, convincingly creating needed sympathy for this embattled Santa before coming on strong as the judge’s worried campaigner.
Other standouts in this cast of 26 include Hali Greenhouse as Doris’s assistant Shellhammer, Christa Wirth as an anti-Santa psycho-babbler, Phil Brady as a drunken Santa Claus and Elaine Boardway as a bag lady.
Six-year-old Tatum Taylor (daughter of leading lady Korrie Taylor) made her speaking debut as Sharon, a bespectacled little blonde with pigtails, as she sits on Santa’s lap and requests “a pink bike with ribbons on the handle bars.” The versatile Jay Merante plays Sharon’s cash-strapped dad, as well as three other roles.
First-time director Bella Calabria certainly had her hands full coaching and blocking such a large cast, but by relying on her core of leading lights, she delivers a warm and heartfelt holiday entertainment that succeeds despite a few weak production values.
“Miracle on 34th Street,” produced by Lizzy Allers, runs at 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Dec. 13, 14 and 15, at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16, and at 8 p.m. Dec. 20 to 22 at CNY Playhouse, located near the Macy’s entrance at on the second level of ShoppingTown Mall. Tickets cost $17 on Thursday and Sunday and $20 on Friday and Saturday; cnyplayhouse.org; 315-885-8960.