Writer/director George Seaton’s “A Miracle on 34th Street” (based on a story by Valentine Davies) was hardly destined to become a Christmas classic when it was released in June 1947. For one thing, it was, well, released in June, and the advertising tried to hide the fact that it was a Christmas movie about a nice old man who plays Santa Claus for Macy’s and who just might be the actual Kris Kringle. However, the movie’s naïve charm and strong performances by Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and a young Natalie Wood won over audiences, and it became a perennial holiday favorite.
Round Rock’s Penfold Theatre has taken this Christmas classic and turned it into a unique performance that’s part stage play and part radio show, calling the hybrid “A Miracle on 34th Street Classic Radiocast.” The adaptation by Penfold co-founder Nathan Jerkins (with a prologue and spoofy commercials added by director Monica Ballard) turns the story into a radio show performed live before the audience’s eyes at the fictional station KPNF.
The strength of this production lies in its old-fashioned charm. The show is very well cast, with an array of actors whose voices adapt to the various characters they portray. While Sarah Marie Curry, Nathan Jerkins, Julie Linnard and Isto Barton take on a number of different roles that play to their vocal talents in a number of amusing ways, the strongest performance comes from Robert L. Berry, who only serves as one character throughout — Kris Kringle himself. In the spirit of Edmund Gwenn and Richard Attenborough, who played Kringle in the two film versions of the story, Berry’s warmth and charm embody the heart of the character, creating a realistic Kringle who doesn’t veer into a parody of our traditional ideas about Santa.
The entire show plays into the nostalgic aspect of the story and its evocation of the classic film. From the location itself, in the agreeably communal Old Settler’s Hall, to the sumptuous look of the set and costumes (designed by Desi Roybal and Glenda Wolfe, respectively), everything about “Miracle” screams of a simpler era.
The weaknesses of the show, however, also stem from this nostalgia. The play is a little too faithful to the screenplay, leading to a lot of expository dialogue and not enough use of the unique format (which features live sound effects). In addition, the story’s message — summed up by the line that “faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to” — may work in the context of a 1947 Christmas film, but in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” it feels hopelessly outdated at best and downright dangerous at worst. There is certainly value to the concept of faith, but it would have been nice to see it updated to reflect modern concerns that also recognize the necessity of a dash of common sense, even within the most faithful.
“A Miracle on 34th Street” is, in a phrase, “old time-y,” which is at the core of both its charm and its failings. If you’re looking for a pleasant holiday escape into a rose-tinted vision of nostalgic white Christmases past, though, it will hit the spot.
“A Miracle on 34th Street Classic Radiocast”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Dec. 23
Where: Old Settler’s Hall, 3300 E. Palm Valley Blvd., Round Rock