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Review: Miracle on 34th Street at Liverpool Playhouse ***1/2

Do you remember when you stopped believing in Father Christmas, consigning him to never never land along with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy?

And be honest, does life feel better for it?

There’s a reason Miracle on 34th Street remains such a much-loved tale, 70 years after the original film – on which this stage musical version by Meredith Willson is based - was released.

Its central message is about faith and hope trumping cynicism and greed, and, as Tim Parker’s Kris Kringle sings, most of all it’s about treating everyone with love.

That’s a sentiment we could all do with embracing in these sharply divided times.

And back with Miracle on 34th Street, if you’re heart isn’t the tiniest bit melted by Parker’s cosy hug of a performance as the man who would be Santa then that’s terribly sad.

There are already enough sceptics populating the stage including the precocious Susan Walker (Maddison Thew on press night) whose mother Doris (Caitlin Berry), the special event coordinator at Macy’s department store, has taught to believe only what she can see, taste or touch.

Stuart Reid (Fred) and Maddison Thew (Susan). Photos Robert Day

Despite her deep-rooted city girl cynicism, Susan is soon won over – first by wisecracking neighbour Fred Gaily (Stuart Reid who musicals fans may remember as Frank Farmer to Alexandra Burke’s Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard) and then by kindly Kris Kringle himself.

A musical written in the early 60s and set in the late 1940s isn’t without its problematic passages for modern day audiences, and chief among these is a grown man knocking about town with a little girl he starts talking to on a stoop – without her mother knowing and, when she does find out, incomprehensibly being concerned only that he’s trying to make a move on her through her daughter.

It also doesn’t help that the way Willson has written Fred manages to make him feel like a much less sympathetic character than in the original film.

It means a burgeoning romance with commitment phobe Doris, played out through a series of retro screwball scenes seems more awkward (a pouncing kiss, the dismissive sexism behind the terms 'dame' and 'little girl' or how ditzy and flustered women are) and frankly less believable than the existence of a bearded man in a red suit who has eight reindeer as personal friends.

Miracle on 34th Street. Photo Robert Day

That aside, there’s an awful lot to enjoy in this ambitious festive offering which reunites the Everyman Rep creative team of director Gemma Bodinetz, musical director George Francis and choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves.

While the musical numbers are mostly forgettable, the production is warm-hearted, nostalgic, energetic and pacy (particularly the first half), and keenly performed and sung by the hard-working cast who populate Olivia de Monceau’s metal two-storey gift-wrapped set.

Maddison Thew, making her professional debut, shows herself to be a supremely assured young actress, while there are some enjoyable supporting performances from an ensemble that includes Everyman and Playhouse alumni Liam Tobin as R H Macy, Kevin Harvey as highly strung junior exec Marvin Shellhammer and Mark Rice-Oxley in any number of roles.

The core cast is augmented by a trio of young performers, but given the space and budget it’s still never going to be a 42nd Street/London Palladium sized chorus line of triple threats so Bodinetz opts instead for a knowingly lo-fi recreation of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

And despite the compact numbers at his disposal, Jackson Greaves’ choreography always makes the stage feel busy.

The second half, with its build up to Kringle’s court appearance, has less verve than the first and the courtroom denouement courtesy of the US postal service could do with more visual impact.

But in this supposed season of good cheer, Miracle on 34th Street offers a good excuse to leave your cynicism in the cloakroom and embrace a joyous, often inventively silly, message of love and hope instead.

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