Japan has always struck me as a highly charged collision of the familiar and the strange: cell-phone wielding schoolgirls and ancient temples; McDonald's and fish-shaped sweets filled with red bean paste. Recently, on a Tokyo street lined with restaurant-supply stores heavy on plastic display sushi, I stumbled on that most American of institutions: the Christmas store. Boy, did they have the Santa thing going on. And such a classic Santa: the blue eyes, the rosy cheeks, everything. Thus sensitized, I began seeing the jolly old fellow everywhere, and everywhere he was the same. No black Santas; no sumo Santas (which would have seemed a natural combination); not even, surprisingly enough, a Hello Kitty Santa to be found anywhere between Tokyo and Kyoto -- and this in a country where even the statue of Colonel Sanders standing outside the KFC has epicanthic folds.
The lesson here is that you can't fight the guy in red. He's everywhere. You cannot hide from the über-Santa. And in Here's Love, Meredith Willson's musical adaptation of the movie Miracle on 34th Street, why would you want to? Cunningly disguised as a department-store Santa, the real Kriss Kringle is irresistible. He comforts the lonely, aids the frustrated, and sows peace between rivals. Yet his boss Doris does her best to resist his pull. Burned by love, single mom Doris is raising her spunky daughter Susie with the understanding that there is no Santa, no Easter Bunny, no Prince Charming. But then there's the sexy ex-Marine next door (Noel Anthony Escobar), a swelling population of New Yorkers caught up in Kriss Kringle's revolutionary "love everybody" message, and Susie's secret fantasy of a farmhouse with a swing, a cow, and a daddy to contend with.
Since the original movie, which starred Natalie Wood, is on television almost as frequently as It's a Wonderful Life this time of year, I'll assume we all know the story and the punch line: The magic of Santa is everywhere if you have faith, and the more children onstage, the better. The Willows Theater's version of Here's Love is goopy, but it's fun, too, and pretty well done, with fun costumes and sets and a little dancing. Not bad considering that the company thought they were doing Oliver -- the rights were pulled at the last minute, forcing artistic director Richard Elliott to scramble for a replacement. Here's Love hasn't got the legs of A Christmas Carol, but it's clever in places, bright and quick, and it hangs together well at the Willows.
Willson -- who gave us the warhorse The Music Man -- was not at the height of his powers with Here's Love. None of the music is quite as magnetic as, say, "76 Trombones," and in places, frankly, the lyrics set my teeth on edge. The cast occasionally looked like the lyrics were setting their teeth on edge too, but they soldiered on no matter how badly the songs clunked, and they turned in some nice performances -- especially the young woman playing Susie (Megan Botts), who blew some of her adult cast mates out of the water vocally, and the elastic-faced Laura Beth Wells as mother Doris. As Kriss Kringle, Robert Rossman would be venerated in Japan as the one true Santa, he's so well cast.
Why do we like it so much when obviously star-crossed lovers hate each other at first? Maybe it makes us feel hopeful that our own romantic disappointments are surmountable. Whatever the case, the sparks between Doris and neighbor Fred seem genuine, and it's nice to have a little sexiness in a Christmas show (note, too, the precocious Girl Scout) -- a little breathless smooching makes all the sentimental stuff more palatable.
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