As one of our more beloved tales in the lexicon of Christmas lore, Miracle on 34th Street began as a story called The Big Heart that was written by Valentine Davies and is best exemplified in the 1947 Christmas film that was written and directed by George Seaton that starred Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and a very young Natalie Wood.
Taking place between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day in New York City, this poignant and powerful tale focuses on the impact of a department store Santa Claus who claims to be the ‘real’ Santa, unleashing waves of good will with Macy’s customers and the commercial world of New York City by referring parents to other stores to find exactly the toy their child ask asked for. Viewed as deluded and dangerous by Macy’s vocational counselor, who plots to have Kris shanghaied to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, Kris ends up in a court competency hearing; bringing to the forefront the question of whether Santa Claus truly does exist.
For director Amy Spadafore, whom is busily bringing the nuances of this landmark production to the stage of Pit & Balcony theatre for their holiday production of Miracle on 34th Street on December 6-8 and 13-15th, she initially toyed with the idea of going outside the box in rendering the production to life on the stage, but realized it best to stick with the values and qualities embedded deep within the script of the play that give the production both its impact and charm.
Spadafore decided she wanted to involve herself with the theatre back in her later years of high school and received a degree from Western Michigan University in Arts Management, working for a non-profit theatre company in Florida called the Alliance Theatre Lab, where she served as resident stage manager and marketing director. Miracle marks her first full length feature directorial debut, which she finds both exciting and challenging.
“I didn’t want to go too far from what people expected because this work is so iconic,” explains Spadafore. “It’s set in the 1940s which is great to stage in terms of costuming and hair; and as far as this production goes, I’m taking an opportunity to utilize all the young talent that we have to draw upon in this area. We had over 50 kids ages 5 to 17 show up for auditions and I couldn’t cast all of them; but it’s truly amazing to have so much talent at our fingertips.”
“In one instance an actor mentioned they play the cello, so I wanted to find a place for that,” continues Spadafore. “Another would say they play guitar and have a singing voice, so I wanted to see how we could make that fit. So it’s with these type of colorations that people might see a few things that weren’t contained in the movie, primarily because of the talent of these exceptional kids.”
With a cast of 34 there is indeed a lot going on within the production. “Mainly I wanted to focus on the idea that Santa Claus is real,” reflects Amy. “That is the main point of the film and something that was always kind of drilled into me by my own Mother, who never told me that he wasn’t real. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he flies around the world on reindeer, but the notion of peace, good will, helping your neighbor, and that spirit that the Christmas season embodies – that’s what I wanted to take and put on the stage.”
“One thing we focus on a lot when talking to the actors about building their characters is to ask them the question: Does your character believe in Santa Claus? It’s interesting when you get people thinking about it,” notes Amy. “The responses help color the action in the play when the various characters come up with their own back-stories. I’m a big fan of having my actors ask what something means to the character they are portraying. Why does their character say a certain line? I think its important for the actor to decide what Christmas actually means to the person they are portraying.”
In terms of her biggest challenge with the production, Amy points to the task of delegating. “I’ve stage managed a few productions here at the Pit before and there is always so much that goes into a production, but until you’re actually living it you don’t realize the magnitude of everything involved with costumes, props, and rehearsals. I’d like to do everything myself, but simply don’t have enough time.”
In terms of acting talent that will be front & center on this upcoming holiday production at Pit & Balcony, both lead actors will be facing their first time on the theatre stage. “Both of our lead characters took their kids to auditions and then the kids talked them each into auditioning,” explains Amy, “but they each knew one another outside of the theatre, so they possess a natural chemistry already.
“Trevor Wilson is in the Army Reserves and has 4 kids at home and is in this production with two of them; and then Michelle Mercy works at TV-25 and has two daughters in the play as well, with experience in media and performance; so it’s great to have parents with their kids onstage acting together.”
“I didn’t want anybody coming into this production with preconceived notions,” emphasizes Amy. “Working with newcomers is always interesting because they tend to take direction really well and you don’t have any bad habits to break.”
“The one main thing I’m trying to focus upon is to stay away from the fantasy and would like to have people leaving the theatre wondering if there really is a Santa Claus or if this is just a regular man, because the Miracles that happen on 34th street are between people in a very literal sense. So is Santa a spirit, is he a man, is he really crazy? I’d like people to possibly enter not believing and leave believing in the spirit of Christmas, more so than the man.”
“I’ve always known that a lot of talent hides in the cracks and crevices of Saginaw, so it’s really refreshing to work not only with the adult newbies but also the kids, who are excited to be part of this production. The ones who got roles are so talented and ready to show off and I took a step back the other day and said to myself, ‘Wow, you have 20 kids in this play. But they are 20 kids who really know their stuff. They’ve got chops and have been a wonder to work with. They’re excited to be here and happy to share their talent with everyone. It hasn’t been a struggle to get them out of their shells once they take to the stage.”
“Mainly, I want to impress upon the youth that acting can be cool. This isn’t a black tie function but a family thing and it is a collective process. I facilitate a creative process as far as who goes where and when; but the acting portion has been way more a collective conversation when it comes to putting together the details involved with both the story and this piece of art.”
Pit & Balcony Theatre & Macy’s present ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ at Pit & Balcony Theatre in Saginaw on December 6-8 and 13-15th. For tickets call 989-754-6587 or visit PitandBalconyTheatre.com