Warm and satisfying, ‘Miracle on 34th St.’ hits holiday entertainment sweet spot

Susan Walker (Kaia Russell) doesn’t look like she’s ready to believe in Santa Claus (Hal Kerbes) just yet despite the best efforts of Fred Gailey (Abraham Asto). (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Susan Walker (Julianna Toft) is decidedly unimpressed when Fred Gailey (Abraham Asto) suggests visiting the store’s Santa Claus (Hal Kerbes). (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Kris Kringle (Hal Kerbes) welcomes Susan Walker (Kaia Russell) who has been urged by Fred Gailey (Abraham Asto) to take a chance and visit Santa Claus. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Susan Walker (Julianna Toth) doesn’t look like she’s ready to believe in Santa Claus (Hal Kerbes) just yet despite the best efforts of Fred Gailey (Abraham Asto). (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Susan (Julianna Toth) gives a pull on Santa’s beard as Fred looks on amused. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Kris Kringle (Hal Kerbes) and Susan Walker (Kaia Russell) chat about make-believe. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Kris Kringle (Hal Kerbes) explains to Susan Walker (Kaia Russell) and Fred Gailey (Abraham Asto) that he is Santa Claus. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Kris Kringle (Hal Kerbes) and Susan Walker (Julianna Toft) chat about make-believe. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Kris Kringle (Hall Kerbes) talks to Susan Walker (Julianna Toft) about the world of make-believe. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Fred Gailey is played by Abraham Asto. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Michelle Morris plays pragmatic Doris Walker, who’s cool on the idea of Santa Claus. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Susan (Julianna Toth) runs happily towards the pretty house she’s hoped for. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Susan Walker (Kaia Russell) tells her mom, Doris (Michelle Morris) and Fred Gailey (Abraham Asto) that Santa Claus gave them a new house. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
‘This is the stick Kris Kringle carried,’ Fred (Abraham Asto) and Doris (Michelle Morris) realize. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
It’s taken some time but Fred Gailey (Abraham Asto) and Doris Walker (Michelle Morris) realize their feelings have changed. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
It’s a Merry Christmas after all for Fred (Abraham Asto) and Doris (Michelle Morris) as they realize they’ve fallen in love. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
It’s time for a group hug when Fred (Abraham Asto), Susan (Julianna Toft) and Doris (Michelle Morris) realize their dreams have come true. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Fred (Abraham Asto), Doris (Michelle Morris) and Susan (Julianna Toft) enjoy a group hug when they realize they are going to be a family with a house in the country. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)
Who can’t believe in Santa Claus with Kris Kringle (Hal Kerbes) around? Kerbes has played the red-suited fellow many times and enjoys it. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

Chemainus Theatre Festival’s production of Miracle on 34th Street is as warm and comfortable as an old pair of slippers.

And so it should be: this timeless story of the triumph of imagination is a wonderful buffer against the incursion of Christmas carols before [Canadian] Thanksgiving, Boxing Week sales in the middle of summer, and all the other sad ways that the magic is being drained out of a special holiday.

This adaptation by Caleb Marshall, who was in the audience on opening night Nov. 15, has modernized some aspects of the play, and reduced a long story to a reasonable size for presentation at Chemainus. And all without sacrificing any of its enduring charm.

We still spend plenty of time with Kris Kringle (portrayed by Hal Kerbes), Susan Walker (Kaia Russell when we saw the show), and her mother Doris (Michelle Morris), the ever cheerful Fred Gailey (Abraham Asto), and all the crowd connected with Macy’s store during the pre-Christmas season.

The principal actors provide a strong foundation that keeps everyone focused on a story that requires many set changes. Kerbes is wonderful as Santa Claus, warm and quirky: a delight for his many fans.

Morris manages the tough job of keeping Doris from being just hard-boiled. We get to see that she’s been hurt and is protecting herself with a carefully built shell and a sharp pair of eyebrows. Asto, making his debut at Chemainus with this production, offers her an unquenchable Fred that she finds hard to resist. And Russell’s presentation of Susan was just right: the touch of acid that’s rubbed off from her mother not quite hiding the hopes of every child that there is really magic out there.

The other actors in this cast are quite a group of quick-change artists. From Brett Harris, who morphs from Macy’s clean-up man to a district attorney with adroit zest, to Jan Wood, who swings from being a trusted second in command to Doris at Macy’s to a superior court judge with aplomb, and Mallory James who can switch from a drunken old woman to a bright young stenographer in a flash, they all score big time on keeping this train on the track.

A special mention has to go to Tim Dixon and Matthew Hendrickson. They not only carry four or even five roles each, but are a delightful comedy duo as Macy and Gimbel. Watch for them.

Set designer Carolyn Rapanos and costume designer Michelle Lieffertz have combined to mount and dress this show appropriately but sparely so that the audience is entirely focused on the characters, who carry this heartwarming story to its expected but still very welcome conclusion.

Miracle on 34th Street runs until Dec. 29. Tickets will make great Christmas gifts. Call the box office at 1-800-565-7738 or visit chemainustheatre.ca online and book those seats now.



lexi.bainas@cowichanvalleycitizen.com

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