Pasadena Playhouse fills this year’s holiday slot with a “live radio play” adaptation of the 1947 movie classic Miracle On 34th Street, a charmer, make no mistake, but more stocking stuffer than a full-fledged Christmas gift to follow the back-to-back brilliance of Our Town and King Charles III.

It’s easy to see the appeal of programming a 14-performance-only “staged reading” rather than leave the Playhouse dark in December. A radio play requires minimal blocking, actors are permitted to read from scripts, and King Charles III’s set stands in quite niftily for the Lux Radio Theatre studio where the original film cast reunited for a December 22, 1947 broadcast of Valentine Davies’s Oscar-winning story.

Indeed, complemented by Hana Sooyeon Kim’s colorful, scene-setting projections and lit with a vibrant holiday glow by Alexander Le Vaillant Freer, the King Charles III set looks quite splendid, its “parliamentary seating” offering up-front audience members an “in studio” experience as Kate Bergh costumes the cast to late-‘40s perfection.

The story being retold is one that has delighted filmgoers, TV watchers, video-and-DVD-viewers, and Netflix streamers since Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, and an Oscar-winning Edmund Glenn first introduced us to Macy’s Department Store Santa Kris Kringle, whose claim to be the real St. Nick soon has him on trial for his sanity as store employee Doris Walker and her attorney neighbor Fred Gailey find themselves falling in love and Doris’s eight-year-old daughter Susan learns to believe in fairy-tale endings.

Three-time Tony nominee Alfred Molina (as the actor playing Kris Kringle), Frasier star Peri Gilpin (as the actress playing Doris), and Beth Grant (most recently Beverly on TV’s The Mindy Project) add their considerable name power to the mix, and director Cameron Watson, fresh from the one-two gut punches of Stupid Kid and bled for the household truth, directs with accustomed flair.

Chief among Miracle On 34th Street (A Live Radio Play)’s delights is getting to see and hear many of its actors voice multiple roles each, chief among them Grant, her real-life husband Michael Chieffo, and Jim Rash, who together bring to colorful life a dozen characters or more.

There’s also the pleasure of getting to watch/hear actor/sound designer Jeff Gardner create live Foley effects as Ryan Johnson provides live piano accompaniment, and the thrill of Yvette Cason’s stunning renditions of such holiday favorites as “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and Nat King Cole’s “A Christmas Song.”  (Gardner, Johnson, and Cason play assorted roles along the way as well.)

Larry Poindexter (stepping in for O’Hara and Payne), Cecilia Witt (in the role that helped make Natalie Wood a 1940s child star), and Lux Flakes spokesperson “Libby Collins” complete the cast. (The production replicates the Lux Theatre broadcast, soap commercials and all.)

Among the evening’s highlights are Grant’s delectable turn as “Hollywood Dramatic Coach” Helena Sorrel, “especially proud of Betty Grable and her new picture When My Baby Smiles At Me,” Rash’s screamingly flamboyant guidance counselor Granville M. Sawyer (“I’ve been happily married for twenty-two years. Very happily married!”), and a sequence that has Rash ricocheting between Sawyer and Macy’s Mr. Macy, though the gag would have worked just as well without having him defy radio-play authenticity by doing so at two separate mikes.

More rehearsal time might have prevented some Opening Night line fluffing (I’m guessing that, even script in hand, the actual Lux Radio Theater performers were letter-perfect) and though ad libs like “Oh, yes, that’s your line” are clever, I wonder how many 1940s radio actors would have broken character for a laugh.

Jessica R. Aguilar is production stage manager and Daniel Trostler is assistant stage manager. Joe Witt is general manager, Christ Cook is production manager, and Brad Enlow is technical director.

Miracle On 34th Street may not be Pasadena Playhouse at its finest, but there are far less entertaining ways to spend seventy-five minutes this holiday season than having your funny bone tickled and your heartstrings pulled by none other than Santa himself.

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Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
December 15, 2017
Photos: Nick Agro








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