No one was more excited than 10-year-old Katie Mewes for “Miracle on 34th Street” to open at the Eldorado Theatre. The red-haired, freckle-faced Reno fifth-grader had the best seat in the house for the heartwarming Christmas musical: On stage, on Santa’s lap.
That’s just one of the scenes in which Mewes plays one of the main characters — headstrong 6-year-old Susan Walker — in the Plan-B Entertainment production that runs through Jan. 1.
“I’m just so thankful that I got the role,” said Mewes, who’s been studying acting since age 4 at Reno’s Take 2 Performers Studio, is signed to a talent agency and last year appeared in an episode of ABC’s “General Hospital.”
“I kind of like (Susan’s) bratty attitude, it’s fun to play. I love acting all, like, spoiled. It’s my favorite part. It’s a little bit of my personality. But mostly, I just like getting away with it on stage.”
The play itself is a joy to perform in, said Mewes — given that “Miracle” entertains adults as well as her own age group.
“I think they just like seeing little kids be happy about getting to see Santa Claus,” she said.
Jolly old elf
And in “Miracle,” the Santa character may be the genuine jolly old elf.
That’s part of the story’s magic. “Miracle’s” feel-good moments never seem to grow old — just as the innocent illusions of childhood never fully disappear. Since “Miracle’s” initial version — a 1947 motion picture that won four Academy Awards — the comedy-drama has undergone three TV-movie remakes and one big-screen reboot (in 1994), and been turned into a Broadway musical (in 1963) with a book and score by Meredith Wilson. The book has since been adopted into a stage play for smaller theaters. But minor changes in names of characters and stores, and rewrites to telescope the narrative to meet time constraints, have never altered “Miracle’s” general storyline or overarching messages about treating one another kindly and — above all — maintaining faith in yourself and the ones you love.
If that faith involves believing in Santa, so be it.
The stage version, like the original film, is set in the postwar 1940s in New York City between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Miracle’s” endurance as a family classic derives from its charming premise: a department-store Santa might be the authentic Claus. He manages to make a believer out of skeptical 6-year-old Susan Walker, whose mother, Doris Walker, a bitter divorcée, has raised her to disbelieve in fairy tales.
Doris is a Macy’s mid-level manager who has organized the store’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. When a dapper middle-aged man with snowy hair and beard complains that the Santa character on the Macy’s float is inebriated, she fires the soused St. Nick and, thinking on her feet, replaces him with the complainer, whose name just happens to be Kris Kringle.
He does so splendidly that Walker hires him as Santa for Macy’s toy department. There, his mission of restoring the Christmas spirit from the ravages of commercialization leads him to direct parents to better toy bargains at rival stores. This alarms the head of the toy department — yet fosters loyalty among customers thrilled by the goodwill. That leads store owner R.H. Macy to give Santa a raise and shrewdly change Macy’s advertising slogan to “the store that places the public ahead of profit.”
But the store psychologist is incensed by Kringle’s uncompromising frankness in assailing uncharitable behavior (including the psychologist’s). Kringle refuses to deny he is the real Claus, is forced to submit to a psychological evaluation, and a state hearing (on Christmas Eve) to determine his mental competency is held before a courtroom judge. The verdict of whether Kringle will be confined to a mental hospital or set free hinges on whether it can be proved Santa is real.
A district attorney squares off in debate with Fred Gailey, a lawyer who’s moved into the same apartment building as the Walkers, fallen in love with Doris — and firmly believes in Kringle’s innocence.
Just add music
How does it all turn out?
The ending’s the same every year, of course. But in the production at the Eldorado, the scenes unfold with sufficiently suspenseful twists, especially for younger viewers seeing “Miracle” for the first time. It’s a high-spirited performance, and the merry mood is set at the start as 11 actors garbed as Santas sing and dance as a chorus line in front of the façade of the Macy’s high rise. Music reigns as a cast members lapse into song about every five minutes during the 75-minute production.
And the music continues past the curtain call. The players, clad in crimson holiday sweaters, engage the audience in carol sing-alongs. What results is a medley of Christmas chestnuts that lasts about 20 minutes and sends patrons off into the chilly night with hearts warmed further.
Los Angeles-based Plan-B Entertainment fields experienced casts, and “Miracle’s” features Christanna Rowader — an L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation winner for Best Actress in a Musical — as Doris Walker, and Joey D’Auria — a 40-year veteran of stage and screen — as Kris Kringle.
Katie Mewes’s vibrant acting has been mostly local, including portraying Lucille Ball in the Silver State Young Chautauqua. But acting isn’t her only pursuit. She pens movie scripts, fences, plays piano and electric guitar, sings and has written a three-chord punk-rock song, “Stop It.”
She was unfamiliar with “Miracle” when asked to audition in October, and prepared by viewing DVDs of both movie versions.
“It has a really good plot,” said Mewes — who confessed she still believes in Santa. “Everyone’s so happy. I know that Christmas makes everyone happy, except for the Grinch.”
At heart, Christmas is not about the presents, Mewes said: “It’s about love.”