Curtains: Miracle on 34th Street at Theater Works

   Kelly Leeth and Fred Bornhoeft are adorable in Miracle on 34th Street.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he was heard mildly cursing into his body mic during a quick backstage costume change last Saturday night in Peoria. But he shouldn't feel bad. Seriously, actor Fred Bornhoeft is such an awesomely wonderful Kris Kringle that his little audio faux pas (in which the sound crew collaborated by not killing the microphone when he exited) was soon forgotten. And that was the second night; it's all ironed out by now, I'd think.

So here's Miracle on 34th Street, all wrapped up in a cozy stage version that feels kind of like a school Christmas pageant, except I'm not related to any of these people. It's a big show, with a large cast and a lot going on, and there's cuteness and good cheer to spare.

Set designer Mark Austin has created a two-sided set, three rooms wide, that spins in front of a Manhattan street scene backdrop like a huge compass needle, pushed by costumed actors who look genuinely imperiled at times. "One of those people is going to go flying right off that stage one of these nights," said my pal the drama teacher.

I simply got a little tired of the scene changes, but long before I did, I was put off by the bad new songs, only one of which was credited to co-adaptor Will Severin. Others were inexplicably added by locals Reynaldo Saenz and Kiara Duran, and I remember hearing another couple of musical soliloquies in the first act for which my playbill doesn't tell me whom to blame. It's a terrible thing to do to what was intended to be a play with music. Just a little music. Aaargh.

And someone (my money's on musical director Saenz, but I could be wrong) was recorded playing the synthesizer as accompaniment for these bad new songs, and then it's played back on a tape deck with a worn belt, or something, so that it sounds pitchy and halting, like that one choir teacher or Scout leader you had who played the piano so you could all sing, but couldn't really play the piano. Either that, or Saenz (who makes a living playing the piano) is an unusually bad writer of bad songs that sound awful when rendered perfectly. Or both.

Joe Kremer, who makes a lot of Valley plays (and Cox commercials) worth watching, almost makes a couple of the songs worth listening to. And he's perfectly cast as Kringle's lawyer, Fred, a grown-up who still wants to believe.

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I had to warn you about those songs, but they don't last too long, and the performers do what they can with them. This production of 34th Street is a fun family holiday thing, taken as a whole. You've got your brilliant authentic Santa, your adorable Dutch orphan with the platinum ringlets, and your wee newsboys hollering expository headlines, all culminating in a wacked-out courtroom scene that should have even the most curmudgeonly killjoys rooting for the victory of magic and innocence. (I mean, it worked on me.)

Miracle on 34th Street runs through December 21 at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets are $11 to $22; buy them here. --Julie Peterson

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