'Miracle' on 3rd Avenue a holiday treat

Posted Online: Nov. 15, 2012, 9:19 am
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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 Saturday, Sept. 20, the 263rd day of 2014. There are 102 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: Recruits can get $500 by enlisting now. Lt Jobe has a recruiting office on Illinois Street.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Superintendent Schnitger formally inaugurated the Rock Island and Davenport Railway Line of the Holmes system by putting on four cars to start.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Wires of the defunct Union Electric Co. are being removed by city electricians.
1939 -- 75 years ago: The Bishop Hill softball team won the championship in WHB"S Mississippi Valley tournament at Douglas Park.
1964 -- 50 years ago: A boom in apartment construction has hit Rock Island, with approximately 300 units either in or near the construction stage or due for an early rezoning decision.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Members of the Bi-State Metropolitan Planning Commission are hoping to revive their push for a new $70 million four-lane bridge spanning the Mississippi River.

(More History)