Miracle on 34th Street, Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. There's a curious, decidedly scary side to many holiday entertainment heavyweights, from A Christmas Carol to It's a Wonderful Life. This 1947 classic is no exception, subjecting Santa Claus to incarceration, psychiatric evaluation, and courtroom trial. Valentine Davies's novelization, published the same year the movie came out, is the source for this stage version, and like Davies's gently satirical telling, it significantly softens the dark undertones of the original film and the 1994 remake. More feel-good family pageant than cathartic or instructional evening of theater, David Cromer's updated staging succeeds thanks to some great casting, its dramatic shortcomings ultimately proving irrelevant.
Establishing place more through props and costumes than set, the scenes have a vignettelike quality appropriate to the storybook material. Lively pacing and varied use of the handsome space keep us interested while en route to the inevitable happy ending, as does the raw charm of the puckish child stars. In appearance and enigmatic grandfatherly demeanor, Fred Zimmerman makes a perfect Kris Kringle; Beth Lacke and Patrick New steadily navigate the corny, romantic "adult" subplot; and Jay Whittaker is viscerally unlikable as the nominal villain. But what makes this Miracle consistently watchable is focused comic work in incidental roles, especially by Martin Duffy, Ned Noyes, Bruch Reed, A.C. Smith, and Bill McGough, who steals every scene he's in as department store magnate R.H. Macy.