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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Laberge

New theatre company brings old-timey charm

The commercialization of Christmas seems to come up every year - are we too far gone away from the true spirit of the season, believing in the illogical, improbable, and unseen? Perhaps no Christmas classic better addresses the issue than the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. Through December 22nd, Forte Theatre Company brings audiences into the live studio for the radio play adaptation by Lance Arthur Smith with original songs and arrangements by Jon Lorenz.

Leah Gawel and Joey Chelius. All photos courtesy of Tessa Swift.

It's a true challenge to highlight any one actor in the piece; each member of the company brings just the right touch to bring the Christmas magic to the stage. Leah Gawel and Joey Chelius star as Doris Walker and Fred Gailey. Gawel carries herself with perfect professional poise, her sensibilities guiding her every decision. Chelius counters her with a jubilance and good-heartedness that manages to break through Doris's high walls.

While the whole company is asked to play many roles, character actors Simon Earle and Lydia Eiche take the cake. The duo juggles accessories and dialects, swapping role upon role and sometimes, with no break between. From the radio perspective, listeners wouldn't miss a beat - but the audience is invited to watch the spectacle, in the glory of its controlled chaos. The result is comedic to a tee.

Joel Kopischke and Lauren Milosavljevic.

The show, of course, would be nothing without Susan Walker and Kris Kringle. Watching Lauren Milosavljevic is like seeing Natalie Wood all over again. She delivers with intelligence and grace, holding her own with a company of area adult professionals. As Forte Theatre Company is making their name in the greater Milwaukee community, Milosavljevic stands as proof that their theatre school must be doing something very, very right.

Joel Kopischke adds polish to any production he enters, and this show is no different. A seasoned Milwaukee professional, it only makes sense to see him as the man himself. Kopischke plays Kris Kringle with full range - his gentleness with little Susan is a bold contrast to his passion for what's true. Through to the end of the piece, you can feel that he may be holding back a small secret of his own - perhaps a special dose of Santa wisdom - which gives Kopischke a magical presence onstage.

Leah Gawel, Joey Chelius, Lydia Eiche, and Simon Earle.

Ryan Cappleman leads the company through the radio play as the announcer - and piano accompanist. His time as the music director shows through his performance. The music makes the show. Yes, the musical moment in the story are touching, but the advertisement interludes and holiday carols give the whole piece a twinkle of 40s authenticity. Gawel, Chelius, Earle, and Eiche are a balanced quartet, melting together in what is both notably impressive and yet not at all distracting from the story at hand. Audiences are tickled when Cappleman pops in, singing a fifth part as he tickles the ivories.

The icing on the cake, the secret sauce, and the key to the production is Justin Hall's work as the Foley Artist. Hall has everything from shoes, to doors, to buckets of glass, prepared for every sound effect in the show. He bounces between instruments and found objects. Before, the performance is a fun and merry musical. With Hall, it becomes an exhibit of an era lost in time.

Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play marks Forte Theatre Company's first work, and it more than puts them on the map. Director Randall Dodge pulls all the stops to create not only an enjoyable holiday evening, but impeccable theatre. The bar is set high for what's to come!


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