“Miracle on 34th Street” at The Pasadena Playhouse

Cast of "Miracle on 34th Street". Photo by Nick Agro.
Cast of “Miracle on 34th Street”. Photo by Nick Agro.

By May S. Ruiz

The Pasadena Playhouse, the State Theatre of California, presents a limited engagement of 14 performances of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ from December 14 to 23, 2017.  Originally a radio play, it is celebrating its 70th anniversary on stage, fittingly, at the Playhouse which is marking its centennial year.            

Directed by Cameron Watson, who helmed the recent revival of Tennessee Williams’s ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, it stars Peri Gilpin (Roz Doyle on NBC’s ‘Frasier’), Beth Grant (Beverly Janoszewski on Hulu’s ‘The Mindy Project’), and award-winning film, television, and stage actor Alfred Molina (‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’) as Kris Kringle.

‘Miracle on 34th Street’ is a staple on TV during the holidays.  Most of us know the story of Kris Kringle, who substitutes as a department store Santa Claus and claims to be the real thing.  He goes all the way to the Supreme Court to prove his sanity and his assertion.

“What is much less known is that this story was very popular as a radio play, when all of America used their ears and their imaginations to completely realize the story,” discloses Danny Feldman, Pasadena Playhouse’s Producing Artistic Director.  “And now in 2017, seventy years later, the eyes of our audience get to watch what went into producing the performance live, which its original listeners never got to see.”

“I’m happy to report that the story in the radio play and movie are very similar,” informs Grant.  “What’s going to be fun for us is that we will be presenting it as though we are actually doing a radio play with sponsors, commercials, a foley artist, and a narrator.  I can’t wait!  I’ve always thought it must have been such an imaginative process for people who were only listening to it.”

Grant plays the role of the mother of the little boy whom Santa sends to Gimbel’s to get the fire engine which Macy’s doesn’t have.  She enthuses, “I’m very thrilled and honored to play the role that Thelma Ritter made famous in what was her first feature film.  That has always been my favorite sequence and Thelma Ritter is one of my heroes.”

Besides that part, Grant will be playing others.  She pronounces, “When Cameron told me I would be playing several different roles I got so excited!  I love doing character work and disappear in my character, and to do so many in one night would be a fun challenge.”

Beth Grant. Photo by Nick Agro.

“This isn’t the first time that Watson is directing Grant and she is quite ecstatic to be reunited with the director.  “I said ‘yes’ as soon as Cameron asked – I will always work for him anytime, as long as I’m available.  He is the most collaborative director I know.  He is gentle, kind, and loving but at the same time he’s tough.  He’ll keep after you if he sees something that needs to come out,” Grant states.

“Cameron is crafting a ‘framing’ for the radio play, adding his artistic genius to create the reality of being in a live performance,” adds Grant.  “He is also using unexpected casting in the various roles – we have some great surprises!”

On learning who her costars were going to be, Grant declares, “I am so thrilled to be working with Peri; she and I have been friends for years, through Cameron.  I saw them act together at The Pasadena Playhouse in ‘As Bees in Honey Drown’ by Douglas Carter Beane.  She is such a lovely person, with a terrific sense of humor.  All that, and beautiful too!  And Alfred Molina as Santa?  Say no more!”

It’s refreshing to hear that admiration for fellow performers coming from an actor as seasoned as Grant.  She has been in several celebrated and honored films in the last few years that you’d think she has a knack for picking the right project to attach herself to.

Known as Hollywood’s lucky charm, Grant has co-starred in three Academy Award-winning Best Pictures: ‘The Artist’, ‘No Country for Old Men’, and ‘Rain Man’.  She has twice received the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble Award for ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’.  She also voiced the Academy Award-winning Best Animated Feature, ‘Rango’.

Grant says of her previous successes, “I have been very lucky to have been in so many great films but I have not picked them so much as they have picked me.  I try to say ‘yes’ to any great role, no matter the size or even the character, as long as I understand the character’s role in the story and I believe that the story needs to be told.  I love to be challenged, to find the goodness in a ‘bad guy’.  I love a story with a heart, to make a statement as long as it’s entertaining in the process.”

“From reading the scripts and knowing the filmmakers, I can tell which ones would do well with audiences and academy members.  I did believe that Barry Levinson’s ‘Rain Man’ and the Coen Brothers’ ‘No Country for Old Men’ would go all the way,” continues Grant.

“I was pleasantly surprised that ‘The Artist’ was so commercially well-received.  I loved it so much but because it was a black-and-white, silent film with subtitles, French stars, and French director, I thought it would just play the art houses.  I was so proud and thrilled that it was appreciated on such a grand scale.

Peri Gilpin, Alfred Molina, Cecilia Witt, and Beth Grant. Photo by Nick Agro.

I’ve been right a few times, wrong a few times; liked movies that didn’t do well.  But, always, I go back to the work and have that optimistic anticipation for what’s next,” Grant says further.

This seasonal production is a first for Grant, “I have never done a Christmas show and I’m thrilled because I love Christmas more than any other time of the year.  I’ve always felt renewed during the holidays and I promise you that every single year something magical happens in my life!  I am still a child at heart, especially during the holidays.  I love everything about the season!”

‘Miracle on 34th Street’ is showing at the Pasadena Playhouse, another first for Grant.  She declares, “I’ve been to see quite a few shows at the beautiful Playhouse but have never worked here before and I’m very honored!  And did you know it’s also their 100th anniversary!

I love TV and movies, but there is nothing like this experience.  When you are on the stage, creating a character, telling a story to a live audience, something truly spiritual happens.  We are all one on this journey together.  I feel so close to the audience; and each one has his own personality!”

Grant concludes, “I hope everyone who sees ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ has a swell time, feel happy, and encouraged about life after they get back home.”

‘Miracle on 34th Street’ makes even the most skeptical among us believe that wishes can come true.  That is the true magic of Christmas.  One can only imagine Grant contentedly sipping hot cocoa, joyful with the knowledge that she somehow helped bring the spirit and warmth of the season to one and all.



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