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`MIRACLE' FEATURES FINE PERFORMANCES

PERFORMERS SHINE IN CLASSIC ADAPTATION DESPITE THE AWKWARD TRANSITIONS

The Morning Call Newspaper Company
by STEPHEN PARRISH
Monday, December 8, 1997
Scott's comments: See "Other" section for more details about the play "Miracle"


Jennifer MacDonald, the young heroine of Pennsylvania Playhouse's "Miracle," is not told fairy tales. Her mother refuses to let her believe in things that do not exist: happy families aren't mentioned because Jennifer is fatherless and her mother is remorseful. Santa Claus is more immediately nixed because the St. Nick employed by the department store the elder MacDonald manages calls himself Kris Kringle and -- get this --claims to be the real McCoy.

Yes, it's a rendition of Valentine Davies' "Miracle on 34th Street," made immortal through the 1947 film version starring a young Natalie Wood. But Pennsylvania Playhouse alum (and star of TV's "Matlock") Dan Roebuck's adaptation pits department store mogul Mr. Hess vs. one Mr. Leh, successfully recalling a long, long time ago in a kingdom not so far away.

The playhouse has cast multiple members of various area theater clans -- a gaggle of Brunells, Crivellaros, Gilkesons, Gunkles, Haneys, Rewaks and Valviks fleshes out a good chunk of the cast -- and the result is an amiable holiday romp suitable for anyone who believes (or loves someone who believes) in Santa.

Co-directors Rody Gilkeson and Colleen O'Brien Jones are more adept at staging smaller scenes than the sprawling transitions that feature the entire ensemble of 30-some actors. Mark and Donna Boyer's otherwise practical set design is somewhat responsible, as it limits mass entrances and exits to the same few awkward portals. Despite some shaky scene changes, saved by a crew of fine carolers led by guitarist Bill Fox, the production boasts fine performances.

Michael Conrad is at the center of the hubbub as the fellow who believes himself to be Father Christmas, and after mere minutes of Conrad's performance, you may be convinced as well. Kathy MacDonald is solid as the doubting mother who winds up going to bat for Kris, as is John Bracali as the attorney who saves Christmas (now there's something you don't see every day).

Jim Loftus is the sleazy shrink who schemes to unmask Santa, and John Flautz and Paul C. Bonnici find the right Frick and Frack chemistry as Mr. Hess and his number one kiss-up. In a juicy character part, Jim Reinsmith puts the perfect amount of restraint on a wonderfully understated Dutchie postmaster determined to deliver Santa Claus' mail to Allentown rather than the North Pole.

Megan Buskirk and Jamie Lee Haney share the role of young Jenny, and the program was unclear as to who performed the part opening night. Whoever it was had the best moment in the show when she pooh-poohed the Salem witch trials as being the result of overblown paranoia.

Jonelle Gilkeson designed the costumes, Linda Grube provided scenic design, John Musarra designed lights, and Elaine Roebuck handled props.

"Miracle" will continue at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 21 at Pennsylvania Playhouse, Illick's Mill Road, Bethlehem. Tickets: $9-$10. 865-6665.