'Miracle' on 3rd Avenue a holiday treat

Posted Online: Nov. 15, 2012, 9:19 am
Comment on this story | Print this story | Email this story
By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com
The twin poles of Christmas -- Santa Claus and Jesus Christ -- have more in common than you might think. And much of their power and influence rests on faith. Do you believe?

In the musical"Miracle on 34th Street," given a rousing, heartfelt production at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island, we're confronted with acceptance of bitter reality versus the possibility of hope, renewal, and something greater than ourselves. In a long-ago Manhattan, fatherless Susan Walker (played with precocious pluck by 10-year-old Laila Haley of Viola) does not believe in Santa -- she doesn't accept anything she can't see, touch, smell or taste.

Susan's innocence was apparently taken from her since her dad left her mom, Doris, the day she was born. Doris -- who's in charge of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and hiring the Macy's Santa -- is strongly played with grit, bite, and unfulfilled dreams by Erin Churchill. The bond and chemistry between mom and daughter is convincingly established early on.

Ms. Churchill's "You Don't Know," in which she longs for elusive safety and love, is heartbreakingly affecting. At the other end of the happiness spectrum, a brief re-enactment of the parade is boisterous and fun, with a marching band, elves, clowns, and Santa babes who kick like the Rockettes.

Nicely in line with some of his earnest, nerdy roles of the past, Tristan Tapscott is aptly cast as nervous do-gooder Marvin, in charge of Macy's toy department, and Paul Nelson is fitting as the pompous, upper-crust owner, R.H. Macy, who's locked in a rivalry with competitor Gimbel's. The brief "Plastic Alligator" is a kick.

Dominating each scene he's in, John Payonk makes a triumphant, assured return to the Circa stage as the wise old elf Kris Kringle, who is the Macy's Santa and is convinced he really is the ultimate gift-giver. Mr. Payonk's booming voice and winning, genial manner are magnetic for the on-stage characters and us in the audience as well.

The most famous song of the show -- penned by "Music Man" composer Meredith Willson -- is actually pretty short. "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" is a carefree counter-melody to "Pinecones and Hollyberries," which fortunately gets reprised twice, all featuring Mr. Payonk.

Previously at Circa, he's portrayed Professor Callahan in "Legally Blonde: The Musical," Edna Turnblad in "Hairspray," Old Deuteronomy in "Cats," and the wicked Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life."

To keep this Christmas confection from being too sugary and saccharine, we have the drama of proving Santa is real, in a court of law, and the romantic tension in the love/hate relationship between Doris and Fred -- the dashing, confident leading man played by Don Denton. The two exchange insults, drip with disdain for each other, and yet in the same scene, passionately kiss. (They say opposites attract, right?)

A non-sung highlight is the instrumental "Toy Ballet" at the end of Act 1, in which Susan dreams of toys coming to life. It features everything from a pig in a tutu and a bear, to Raggedy Ann and Andy.

Act 2 seems to contain much less music, and it plays out in the more clinical settings of a courtroom and Bellevue Mental Hospital, where Kris is unjustly deemed insane. Circa Bootlegger Brad Hauskins(a veteran of "Almost Heaven: The Songs of John Denver" and "Southern Crossroads") is the judge, andJoseph Baez ("Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," and "Holly Jolly Christmas") is the district attorney.

As the harried, over-the-top psychologist Mr. Sawyer, Bootlegger Marc Ciemiewicz ("Happy Days: The Musical," "The World Goes 'Round," and "Nuncrackers") is hilarious. A silly, invigorating number in Act 2 is "My State, My Kansas."

The cute, affectionate show isdirected with aplomb by Circa veteran Ann Nieman, who most recently helmed the January "Grease," and whose productions include "Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Annie," and "All Shook Up."

As the Bootleggers usually tie their pre-show revue to the main-show theme, this one includes the inspirational song "Believe" and reading of the famous1897 editorial in the New York Sun, in response to a letter from 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon, asking if Santa was real.

It reads (appropriately written by a believer named Church) in part: "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence."


If you go

-- What: "Miracle on 34th Street."
-- When: Through Dec. 30; 7:45 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays (buffet dinner served from 6 to 7 p.m.); 5:45 p.m. Sundays (buffet dinner served 4 to 5 p.m.); and 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays (plated lunch served 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.).
-- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $48.07 for evening productions and $42.32 for matinees, with reduced prices for students, seniors, and groups of 12 or more. Call (309) 786-7733, ext. 2, or go to circa21.com.


Local events heading

  Today is Thursday, July 31, the 212th day of 2014. There are 153 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: A corps of surgeons now occupies the new hospital quarters at the Garrison Hospital on the Rock Island Arsenal. A fence has been installed to enclose the prison hospital.
1889 -- 125 years ago: B. Winter has let a contract to Christ Schreiner for a two story brick building with a double store front on the south side of 3rd Avenue just west of 17th Street. The estimated cost was $4,500.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Germany sent simultaneous ultimatums to Russia and France, demanding that Russia suspend mobilization within 12 hours and demanding that France inform Germany within 18 hours. In the case of war between Germany and Russia, France would remain neutral.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Civil service offices at the post office and the Rock Island Arsenal were swamped as more than 700 youths sought 15 machinist apprenticeships at the Arsenal.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Last night, American Legion Post 246 in Moline figuratively handed over the trousers to a female ex-Marine and petticoat rule began. Olga Swanson, of Moline, was installed as the first woman commander of the post .
1989 -- 25 years ago: The Illinois Quad City Civic Center captured the excitement and interest of a convention of auditorium managers this weekend in Reno, Nev. Bill Adams, civic center authority chairman, said the 10,000-seat arena planned for downtown Moline has caught the eye of construction firms, suppliers, management teams and concession groups.

(More History)