REVIEW: Miracle on 34th Street (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, December 6)

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas – but if the festive season brings reindeer, Nativities, and presents it is also bound to produce its fair share of Scrooges and “bah, humbugs!”

Meredith Willson’s seldom-seen musical Miracle on 34th Street (which started out under the name of Here’s Love 50 years ago) has plenty of snow and glitter – and even a very believable Santa – but it falls short on the sparkle that might make the Yuletide glisten.

Most will be familiar with the story from the 1947 or 1994 films (the stage musical is based on the original), in which a certain department store employee named Kris Kringle tries to persuade a bunch of sceptics that he is the genuine article.

Willson was responsible for one of the finest ever musicals, The Music Man, but this show – for which he wrote the book, music and lyrics – has not stood the test of time well. With the exception of That Man Over There and the evergreen It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (which Willson had written in 1951 but included in the show to be sung in counterpoint to Pinecones and Holly Berries) the songs are unmemorable. There are definitely no trombones leading any big parade here.

An exceptionally hard-working cast work with zing and zest, but are let down somewhat by a cheap set providing little in the way of atmosphere. And if live musicians ever needed an example of why backing tracks should never be used in live musicals then they need look no further than this: the awful, tinny quality completely ruins whatever good the company are doing. Director Paul Taylor-Mills and the creative crew have some tremendous credits to their name, but this sort of standard gives touring productions a very bad name.

So all praise to the cast, called upon in many cases to play several characters and manage some very quick costume changes. Both leads and ensemble work their socks off and certainly deserve a little extra something in their stockings for making something from this dumpy pudding of a production.

James Murphy is so lovable and strong as Kris Kringle that you might believe he’ll be off on Christmas Eve delivering presents around the world. Inez Mackenzie as the cynical mum who discovers a new reason for the season and Jay Rincon as a marine turned lawyer work well, and Craig Berry’s store-owner Mr Macy is likeable with a powerful singing voice.

No one minds some seasonal schmaltz and sentimentality but audiences may feel this chestnut needs a good roasting on an open fire as it so rarely reaches the level of truly heartwarming. Bah!