By STEVE FEENEY
Long before there were Internet wish lists and midnight stampedes at the mall, kids' Christmas fantasies often centered on a trip to Macy's in New York City to visit the store's state-of-the-art toy department.
"Miracle on 34th Street," the 1947 movie based on a book by Valentine Davies, further fueled those dreams with a happy little story about a particularly magical holiday season.
The theatrically ambitious Portland Players have just opened the Meredith Willson musical version of that mythological Manhattan story and it's right on time to kickstart the traditional spirit of the season.
The Portland Players like to emphasize "community participation" and they certainly have done so with this holiday show.
More than 2 dozen performers at times fill the stage with large production numbers mixing song, dance and comedy (and there are even more people pitching in behind the scenes).
Director Joshua Chard has, however, wisely located the core of the story in a few crucial scenes featuring the standout performers Erin Marenghi, Kira Quinn, Schuyler White and, as the jolly fat man himself (though he's really not that stout), Steve Lupien.
The department store Santa who believes he's actually Santa pulls the needful but skeptical characters through a bit of a spiritual struggle on the way to a renewal of all the good stuff that the season represents.
At Friday's opener, Marenghi and Quinn built on a cute mother/daughter relationship established early in the show while also showing comedic talents.
White, as a persistent suitor, earned cheers for his fine singing voice.
"Here's Love," Willson's original title for the musical as a whole, made for a great ensemble number that really got the show off the ground.
The music and choreography gelled to an impressive degree, and Lupien, who also designed the quick-changing sets, and company made it all work exceptionally well.
Live musical accompaniment directed by Bob Gauthier also helped to keep things moving as did the period choreography by Jamie Lupien Swenson.
Near the close of the first act, a toy ballet reminiscent of "The Nutcracker" got lots of kids onto the stage in colorful costumes designed by Crystal Giordano.
The courtroom scene of the second act featured fine work by Joe Swenson and ensemble on "The Man Over There is Santa Claus." Justin Stebbins also earned laughs in this and several other scenes as did Gerry Barnicle and Cullen Burke in multiple roles.
This show will make you feel that, as the cast sings in a couple of spots, "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas."
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.Tweet