Lansbury Sings 'Mrs. Santa Claus' to Life

Ever wonder about Mrs. Santa Claus? Ever wonder who keeps Kris Kringle company during the 364 days when he stays at the North Pole?

Jerry Herman, the veteran Broadway composer of "Mame," "Hello, Dolly!" and "La Cage aux Folles," wondered, too, and the result is "Mrs. Santa Claus," a musical production large and expansive enough for big-screen viewing, filled with colorful dance numbers and rich, period settings.

"Mrs. Santa Claus" is the first original musical written for CBS since Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" in 1957. The show stars Angela Lansbury in her first television role since "Murder, She Wrote" ended.

As the story, which is set in 1910, opens, Mrs. Claus is not a happy wife. Santa pays her far too little attention, and she feels out of touch with the busy preparations for Christmas. Hoping to participate in a more meaningful way, she takes Santa's sleigh out for a trial of a new, more efficient route for Christmas Eve. But a stray wind brings the sleigh down into New York's Lower East Side, where a landing injury to Cupid, the reindeer, grounds Mrs. Claus for a week in a polyglot, mixed ethnic world of immigrants.

It's a world that Herman clearly loves, and he explores it in a wide range of numbers. There are small, intimate songs such as "We Don't Go Together at All," a love duet between an Italian boy and a Jewish girl. And there are large production numbers such as "Avenue A," a big, exciting piece that wanders around the Avenue, past pushcarts, peddlers and antique vehicles, with a huge cast of dancers (superbly dressed by Bob Mackie) filling the screen with Don Pippen's vigorous choreography.

Lansbury, looking lovely and singing with charm and musicality, brings Mrs. Claus to life. Terrence Mann is perfect as the heavy, Augustus P. Tavish (up to the point where Mark Saltzman's otherwise serviceable script obliges him to make a too-quick dramatic change). Charles Durning, with little to do, is believable as Santa, but Linsey Bartilson as the young, Irish girl Nora is the show's real find.

Pleasant and endearing as the production may be, it is not exactly first-rate Herman, whose best work balances his tendency toward sentimentality with a real desire for emotional honesty. Here, everything is just a bit too sweet. Memories of "Hello, Dolly!" drift into the musical themes. Some scenes have an ambience recalling "Oliver," and the story tosses in a soupcon of "Abie's Irish Rose" and a bit of "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas."

Still, it's nice to see a new musical, regardless of its flaws, make it to television. "Mrs. Santa Claus" isn't "Miracle on 34th Street," but it just may be around for a long time.

* "Mrs. Santa Claus" airs 8-10 p.m. Sunday on CBS (Channel 2).

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