It's Dec. 22, 1947, a little over two years and three months after the end of World War II. War-weary Americans have every reason to be pessimistic about the future of humankind. But a Christmas tale is about to bring hope to millions of radio listeners:
"Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don't you see? It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles," Fred Gailey, the attorney for Kris Kringle, aka, Santa Claus, says in "Miracle on 34th Street."
The movie of the same name was released in the spring of 1947, and it's become a classic. But few people know that months later it was broadcast as a radio play on Lux Radio Theater, starring some of the film's same actors: Maureen O'Hara as the cynical Doris, John Payne as idealistic Fred Gailey, Natalie Wood as Susan and Edmund Gwenn as twinkly-eyed Kris Kringle.
Now Los Altos Stage Company has reprised the radio play, staging a live musical version adapted from the 1947 Lux Radio broadcast that in these cynical times will have audiences believing in the value of those same "intangibles."
Directed by Allie Bailey, with Benjamin Belew-Sakaguchi as musical director and Karen Law as assistant director and choreographer, the play follows a script by Lance Arthur Smith and original songs and arrangements by Jon Lorenz, commissioned by the San Diego Musical Theatre to create the production.
Los Altos Stage Company's version has some solid merits and some disappointments, but it's still worth seeing. It faithfully recreates a retro radio-broadcasting studio, right down to the sound booth, microphones and Foley instruments for realistic sound effects. An old-fashioned free-standing radio is stage left and brightly-lit, vintage "applause" signs cue the audience when to clap. It creates the right ambiance for a live radio performance in the 1940s.
The actors performing live from "KLASC radio" in Los Altos sing advertising jingles from the era in between snacking and sipping wine and other alcohol-based beverages while off-mic, much like they might have done in a real studio around holiday time.
Bill C. Jones (a regular at Los Altos Stage) is an affable, low-key Santa bent on valuing the "spirit of Christmas" more than profits, sending customers off to other stores when Macy's doesn't have what they want. But his role, which was so prominent in the film version, is largely pushed to the back of the set, and that was deeply disappointing. What we want is Santa Claus, with all of his twinkly-eyed mirth, roundness and warmth. But we never get that.
There's no ho-ho-ho to this Santa Claus. The only time we see him truly featured and animated is when his even-keeled mein gets challenged by phony Macy's psychiatrist Granville Sawyer, whom he clocks on the head with his self-crafted cane made from a reindeer-sled runner with a silver top.
In a sense, it's not Santa Claus who's the main character in this play, but the radio performance itself.
The other actors dominate. Daniel Zafer-Joyce, who debuts at Los Altos Stage Company in this production, has a fine voice and the right look as a boyish Fred Gailey.
Bryan Moriarty switches deftly in various roles, including the pompous R.H. Macy and Mr. Shellhammer, Doris Walker's anxious boss, among other roles. (Sadly, the hilarious Mrs. Shellhammer from the movie doesn't make an appearance.)
Mary Melnick brings a spirited performance as the skeptical and jaded Doris Walker. One of the warmest performances came from Vanessa Alvarez. She plays various female-character roles and brought the most rounded and powerful voice to the stage.
Ken Boswell does a crisp job as radio announcer and Foley artist, creating the sound effects, and he doesn't get in the way of the other performances. The piano by Belew-Sakaguchi, however, was a bit overpowering at times and swamped some of the singers' voices.
My favorite performance was by 13-year-old Venice Ella Mayor, who plays Susan Walker, the spunky little girl who doesn't believe in Santa Claus. Her performance was full of spirit, and she is clearly going to be one to watch. (After her solo performance of "I Believe in You," veteran performer Jones, still in his Santa role, was clearly congratulatory when she returned to her seat beside him.)
The period costumes, set and sound effects make for some of the production's most interesting features, as do the old-fashioned jingles about Lux soap, Tupperware and Camel cigarettes. The original musical numbers didn't have any standouts and were mixed with other traditional holiday songs. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing; the audience was clearly cheerful when the performers broke out in something familiar, but they did seem a bit incongruous in the sense that they felt like filler.
Still, I liked "Miracle on 34th Street," the musical. It had the right feel of a radio show and it was uplifting. In an age when many people feel we've lost touch with those intangibles like kindness and love and joy, it just might be a balm needed for these fraught times.
What: "Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Show" by Los Altos Stage Company.
Where: 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.
When: Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays 3 p.m., through Dec. 22.
Tickets: $30-$38; $20 students.
Info: 650-941-0551; Los Altos Stage Company.