|A Scene form Last Year's" Miracle on 34th Street" at Cal U.|
Watching the film version of "Miracle on 34th Street" has become one of the nation’s most popular holiday traditions, viewed by millions each year. This December, however, fans of the film will be able to take in the musical version, performed at California University of Pennsylvania by nearly a cast of 60 and buttressed by a live, 21- piece orchestra under the baton of music director, Kathy Sacco, Ph.D., professor in the university’s music department.
Meredith Willson, of "The Music Man" fame, wrote the book, music and lyrics to the musical adaptation, which pretty much follows the story line of the original film with a few changes made to enhance the theatrical experience.
The story takes place between Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and Christmas. It centers on a white bearded gentleman who claims to be the real Santa Claus and brings about a "miracle" on 34th Street, spreading a wave of love throughout New York City.
Patrons who catch the show should be familiar with "It’s beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," one of the songs that’s gone on to become a holiday tradition in its own right. The musical also calls for seven dance numbers, which will be choreographed for the production by Maria Gismondi, an alumnus who’s danced professionally both in the region and in New York City and now teaches at the Mon Valley Performing Arts Academy.
Michelle Pagen, Ph.D., who’ll direct the show and is the chair of the Department of Theater and Dance, said she intends to be attentive to the public’s love for the film and to honor that affection throughout the production.
For a number of years, the theater department staged productions of "The Nutcracker," but when Steele Hall reopened after a major renovation a few years back, the department decided to produce a new musical and chose "A Christmas Carol, the Musical."
Wanting to alternate each Christmas season with a second holiday musical, Pagen said she looked around and found "Miracle." Down the road, the plan is to stage the two holiday shows in alternate years.
Katey Sheehan, a senior theater arts major from Belle Vernon, is tackling the major role of Doris Walker. In last year’s "Miracle," she served as dance captain and a member of the ensemble.
"For me, trying to create the mother figure is the most difficult aspect of the role," she said. "I’m a college student with no children of my own, but I’m trying to bring to the role the right amount of maturity."
Sheehen said she’s been involved in musical theater since the sixth grade and is undaunted by the need to sing solo in front of a large audience. "Theater is something I love to do and something I hope to do for the rest of my life," she said.
As the pivotal lawyer, Fred Gailey, Jason Capello, a senior environmental studies major from Lebanon, Pa., is reprising the role from last year. He said that, although his lines remain the same, he’s now working with a new cast of actors in a show that’s seen a few changes here and there.
When asked about the challenges of singing a major role, he said, "like everything else in theater, it’s a matter of rehearsing until you’re satisfied with your confidence level."
As, Susan, the young girl who serves as the catalyst for the Christmas miracle, 11-year old Emily Bittner of Charleroi is no stranger to the stage. She’s already been cast in three shows at Cal. U., including the role of the Little Dutch Girl in last year’s "Miracle." She’s also performed in musicals at Charleroi High School and three shows with the Mon Valley Performing Arts Academy, where she studies theater.
"Emily was singing as a child even before she was verbal," said her mother, Gina Bittner. "Her first performance at the age of five was in front of an audience of 500 at a big travel show at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. I thought she’d have a little stage fright, but she actually sang her heart out and got a standing ovation."
One of the technical elements that should be a boon to the young actress as well as the rest of the cast is that they’ll be fitted with microphones. That should get the words and lyrics out to all parts of the 613-seat mainstage theater, equipped with state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment.
"I’ve been telling my friends about the production and hope they come to see it," Emily said. "I’m very excited to be able to do one of the show’s major roles in front of a large audience."
"The Miracle on 34th Street, The Musical" is at the Steele Hall on the campus of California University of Pennsylvania at 8 p.m. on December 4, 5 and 6 and at 2 p.m. on December 6 and 7. Tickets are $12 or 50 cents for Cal U students with a valid ID card.