Believe in a holiday classic

By Milan Paurich

‘miracle on 34th street’

The Youngstown Playhouse production opens for two weekends starting Friday.

Practically everyone knows “Miracle on 34th Street,” the beloved 1947 holiday perennial about a cynical little girl (ineffably played by the radiant young Natalie Wood) who learns to believe in Kriss Kringle (beautifully personified in Edmund Gwenn’s iconic, Oscar-winning performance) against the impossibly romantic backdrop of post-WW II New York City.

But few are familiar with the 2006 stage adaptation which, understandably, has become something of a community theater staple in recent years.

The Youngstown Playhouse production of “Miracle on 34th Street” that opens for two weekends this Friday closes the door on the Playhouse’s Lazarus-like 2009 season.

A year ago, most theater mavens assumed that the venerable institution was gone with the wind. Yet, just like in the ’47 movie, all it took was some fierce determination and the courage to believe. In that spirit, one miracle begets another.

To help bring its “Miracle” alive, the Playhouse turned to Youngstown State University graduate — and Move Over Broadway Productions (MOBP) founder — Marlene Strollo, a 27-year community theater veteran.

During a recent interview, Strollo discussed “Miracle on 34th Street” and why it holds such a dear place in her heart.

“The storyline is the same as the movie’s, but the theatrics are very different,” Strollo explained. “In a film, the cinematographer can dissolve into new scenes; on stage, we must take the time to change locations with scenery.”

Sounds simple enough, right?

As for some of the movie version’s fabled setpieces and locations (e.g., the interior of Macy’s Department Store or Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), don’t look for budget-busting re-creations.

“We’re only using ‘suggested’ locations for continuity purposes,” Strollo continued. “Just as Kriss teaches Susan about the world of imagination, we can use our imaginations to picture those locations.”

Although Strollo is best known for her work with Canfield’s MOBP, her Playhouse roots go deep.

“A 1981 musical theater workshop at the Playhouse became my principal motivation to act and direct, and to pursue a degree in theater. Working at the Playhouse again is like coming home,” she said.

A self-confessed sentimentalist and incurable romantic, Strollo promises that her production won’t be a modernization or update like the considerably less revered 1994 “Miracle on 34th Street” remake. “Our ‘Miracle’ is staying true to the vintage of the piece and keeping it in the 1940s. It’s too much of a classic. Tampering with the original appeal would almost seem irreverent.”

Taking a leap of faith to believe in a construct as fanciful as Santa Claus is more difficult than ever in these tough economic times. Strollo, however, is confident that “Miracle”’s original message will still strike a chord and resonate with contemporary audiences. “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to,” she said matter-of-factly.

The Playhouse’s “Miracle on 34th Street” features a bustling, 34-member cast. Susan Walker, the plum (Wood) role, will be played by 8-year-old Lauren Cline. For Doris, Susan’s stressed-out, workaholic mother, Strollo turned to acting novice Andrea Cicorretti. “Andrea is walking the boards for the first time, and is doing a most commendable job of it,” she said enthusiastically.

Also featured in the show are Tim McGinley as jolly old Kriss Kringle and Carl Brockway as Fred Gailey, Doris’ romantic interest.

“Some of our cast are seasoned performers and some are neophytes,” Strollo continued. “But we’re all working very hard to give the audience the feel of the movie.”

Besides her “Miracle” Playhouse duties, Strollo also recently directed MOBP’s Yuletide pageant, “Believe: White Christmas,” which concludes its run this weekend at St. Michael Church’s Family Life Center in Canfield.

After a much-deserved break, Strollo promises to be back in the saddle again next year. She already has several projects in the pipeline for 2010, including “Grease” at South Range High School in March and MOBP’s summer production of Stephen (“Wicked”) Schwartz’s “Godspell.”

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