It’s true! There’s been a kind of miracle in progress at Conroe’s Crighton Theatre. Under the fine direction of Becky Teague, much of this miracle rests on the shoulders of two very different actors in this month’s production of “Miracle on 34th Street”. First, in the role of Kris Kringle / Santa Claus, there was the sparkling performance of Crighton favorite and veteran, Dennis O’Connor. As ever, his energy fills the stage even when he is alone there. Then, in a remarkable performance, there was the extraordinarily talented Layla Murray-Schroeder. A nine year-old third grader, Miss Schroeder had exceptional stage presence, vocal power and clear-voiced articulation. But beyond that, she perfectly captured the attitude of youthful skepticism that is central to the part of Susan Walker (“People who play make-believe are just unable to deal with real life!”) Movie fans will remember that young Natalie Wood created the character in the classic 1947 film. O’Connor gives us a merry and mischievous Kringle who is the perfect foil for Susan’s skepticism. His facial expressions and body language are priceless whether imitating a goose or a monkey. With this genial, witty, and delicious characterization of Santa, he could give the film’s star, Edmund Gwenn, a run for his money.
Of course there was much more to this delightful evening than these two wonderful stars. A highlight throughout the performance was the superb caroling of a sextet of singers that included Jeff Bingham, Kimberly Lambright, Lindsay Crouse, Giny Mendez, Preston Foster and Joe Winter. With sweet mellow tones and crisp counterpoints, they opened both Act I and Act II, and provided perfect transitions between scenes. Their holiday favorites included “Let it Snow,” “White Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” “The Christmas Waltz,” “Blue Christmas,” Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” These musical numbers glowed like a soft fireplace ember and were a tribute to the smooth musical direction of Laurie Lee Cosby and the gentle keyboarding of Bob Stiffler.
Whether with park bench or courthouse chambers, simple and effective set designs were provided by Becky Teague, Marty Craig, and Michael Hayes. There were beautiful ’40’s costume designs from Lynn Peverill. Sound designs of Joe Cantu and lighting designs of Justin Woods enhanced the production. There was fine staging of the Macy’s Parade scene that featured many of the talented children in the Crighton “family,” including young Adam O’Connor, Mr. O’Connor’s son. The youngsters who played toys in Macy’s deserve special credit for staying “frozen” for long periods.
Bitter over a failed relationship, Susan’s mother Doris is nicely portrayed by Michelle Swaim. From bright red suits to elegant emerald green satin nightgowns, Peverill has given Swaim has some lovely costumes. And speaking of bright red suits, Santa’s is a classic! Scott Haney portrays Doris Walker’s love interest, Fred Gayley, with gentle charm. But his best work is in the courtroom as the defense attorney representing Kringle. Terry Woods has a nice turn as Sylvia, a Macy’s store representative. Susan Nye has fun as the scowling Macy’s store psychologist who meets her match in Kringle. Her hats are the best since Hedda Hopper and she has the costumes to match.
Act II’s courthouse scenes feature strong performances from John Stevens as the Judge, Dale Trimble as Thomas Mara the prosecutor, and Neil Courington as the judge’s friend and advisor, Charlie. Numerous other supporting players do fine work, young Parker McCollum brings special sparkle to the part of Tommy Jr., the prosecutor’s son, and Joey Lamont is in great voice as the Radio Announcer we never see.
O’Connor’s Kringle had asked the key question early in the show: “Is there no true Christmas spirit left in this world?” He needn’t have worried about Conroe, Texas. I can tell you categorically that when the curtain came down the audience was on its feet cheering and brimming over with the Christmas spirit! And everyone had learned the lesson Fred Gayley spoke of: “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to!”
(The Courier 12.8.02)