Year after year, classic Christmas stories from A Christmas Carol to It's A Wonderful Life to Die Hard are welcomed back like a favorite relative we only see around about December 25. These stories have become as much a part of holiday tradition as Santa Claus and the tree.
And then, there's Miracle on 34th Street, a classic that isn't quite as flashy and thus sometimes overshadowed by Scrooge's annual journey to redemption and Ralphie's mad pursuit of a Red Ryder BB gun.
This season, however, Miracle is getting plenty of attention here in Houston because Houstonians will have the chance to see the original film, a radio play also based on the film, and a play inspired by the novel that 20th Century Fox rolled out concurrently with the film back in 1947. Apparently, this is a season for miracles.
All the stories are essentially the same. Heading into the Christmas shopping season at Macy’s, the store’s PR director fires the guy playing Santa Claus, only to have a man named Kris Kringle turn up and fill out the red suit and boots perfectly, all while claiming to be the real Santa. Naturally, everyone thinks he’s nuts, and he’s carted off to a lunatic asylum. Even so, there’s something about Kris that has people believing that maybe, just maybe, he is what he says. And that belief transforms a city.
“The story’s core value is that sometimes in life, you just have to believe,” says Mitchell Greco, who directs Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Music Radio Play at Stages Repertory Company, running through December 15. “It’s really powerful to believe in something you don’t have evidence for.”
The Stages production brings together a cast of half a dozen to present the version of the story done for Lux Radio Theater in 1947. That’s also the year the movie came out, and the radio adaptation featured the movie’s cast, including its stars Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn—the latter won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Kris Kringle. The characters in Stages’ production play actors playing actors playing characters, and Greco says the show’s been fun to put together.
“It’s a musical, so there are no only original songs, but some great 1940s settings of songs people know," Greco says. "Using those vocal styles and harmonies has been great. And we’ve had such a great time experimenting with all the Foley sounds. Our favorite has been making the sounds for the flashbulbs.”
Greco says the format of a radio play invites a different kind of attentiveness on the audience's part. And if the opening night crowd on November 8 was any indication, audiences won’t just pay attention, they’ll be swept up in the story.
At the end of this month, A.D. Players launches its version of the story, a play adaptation directed by Philip Hays, who admits he can’t recall seeing the movie—and didn’t watch it as he was preparing for rehearsals, either.
“I wanted to be able to make discoveries in the text,” he says. “And I didn’t want to pre-suppose the happy ending. We have to earn that.”
Hays says the A.D. Players' version uses the adaptation created by Mountain Community Theater in California based on the novella of the story that came out to coincide with the movie. Like Stages, Hays’s Miracle also takes place in 1947.
“It’s such a fun time to put on stage,” he says. “America had come out of the war; we’re going into the 1950s, which becomes the height of post-war consumerism. And all of those things really resonate in the story. Kris Kringle becomes this ambassador to tell us to slow down and look differently at the season.”
And for those who take in one (or both!) of the stage adaptions in H-Town this Christmas and then want to see the source material, they can do so at Discovery Green on December 5, when the original movie will play as part of Bank of America’s Screen on the Green series. Programming director Susanne Theis says she’s looking forward to people seeing it.
“It’s about making memories with loved ones, which is even more delightful when done in a community at a park,” she says. “We're excited to screen this timeless holiday classic.”
However Houstonians manage to see the beloved story, Hays says he hopes people reflect a bit on how they can not only capture, but live, the holiday spirit.
“I think this play is about how an encounter with someone who really embodies what the holiday is can change people," Theis says. "I want people to think about that, to contemplate their place in Christmas and how their hearts can be open, and how we can change the world—not just buy all the stuff.”
The A.D. Players show runs from Nov. 27 to Dec. 22. Tickets start at $25; visit adplayers.org for more info.
The Stages production runs through Dec. 15. Tickets start at $25; visit stagestheatre.com for more info.
The film screening at Discovery Green is Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. Free; visit downtownhouston.org for more info.