REVIEW: ‘White Christmas’ Delivers

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Why is White Christmas the first revival the Playhouse has staged since I started reviewing shows seven years ago? Because it provides a positively perfect fit for the December slot in the Playhouse’s season. How perfect? The complete run of White Christmas was sold out before Thursday’s opening night performance (and they even added another show).

If you are one of the lucky people who have tickets, then stop reading. Just go, see the show, and enjoy it. Put up the tree, wrap presents, and bake cookies in the interim. But If you do not have tickets, then keep reading, and let me tell you what you will be missing.

The show-biz plot remains essentially the same from the beloved 1954 film: two song-and-dance men, who are also World War II vets, romance two sisters, who also happen to dance and sing. The four end up trying to save the Vermont inn of the boys’ former commanding general, where things are unseasonably warm just in time for the holidays.

Director/Choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell makes his mark in the show’s half-dozen production numbers, where he comes up with a variety of ways to combine his principals with the singing and dancing members of his ensemble. The opening night crowd’s biggest reaction was to “I Love a Piano,” which starts off the second act, and as anybody who saw the production of Anything Goes Ferrell directed earlier this year could have anticipated, the deciding factor tipping the scales in favor of this one was the whole lot of tap dancing going on.

Shad Olsen makes for quite a credible crooner as Bob Wallace. Five minutes into this show he has to stand there and since the best selling song of all time to an audience with the Bing Crosby version ingrained in their engrams. Olsen’s rendition is quite warm and tender, and you have no problem believing he could have been fronting a band in the early 1950s, which is important because there is a key element of nostalgia to this particular show. He also brings a bit of Irish Tenor to “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Ali Littrell Finstrom plays Betty Haynes, who is wickedly funny in her cute meet gone horribly wrong with Bob, and then inexplicably is never given the opportunity for another laugh the rest of the show. Finstrom’s “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” is certainly her signature song, with some effective shifts in modulation, and Ferrell’s staging was an especially nice little homage to the movie version. Finstrom’s dress for that song was my favorite one in the show (that was not colored red, obviously). Her brief reprise of “How Deep is the Ocean” should bring a lump to your throat.

Shad Olsen and Ali Finstrom from the of 'White Christmas.' (Photo by Steve Kucera of the Duluth News Tribune)

Shad Olsen and Ali Finstrom from the of ‘White Christmas.’ (Photo by Steve Kucera of the Duluth News Tribune)

Kyle McMillan further solidifies his reputation as a second banana song and dance man about town. His performance as Phil Davis stands out as his best such role to date simply because it appears effortless. McMillan has always been a high energy performer, with a natural tendency to play things big whenever possible. This time everything from his cracking jokes to his dancing is more restrained, more controlled, and more effective.

Granted, romance is in that clean Vermont air, but the best chemistry on stage actually end up being between Olsen and McMillan, who might have complimentary heights, pitch, and pacing, but do share a common local high school. One nice twist in the stage version is that the reprise of “Sisters,” which now comes after intermission instead of before, is done without lip syncing, which makes it even funnier.

The Haynes sisters boarding their train for Vermont!

The Haynes sisters boarding their train for Vermont!

Because the romantic subplots are really built on little more than a collage of clichés, it is not really surprising that the relationship between the Haynes sisters is also way more believable. If Betty represents sense, then Meghan Jarecki as younger sister Judy is all about sensibility. Jarecki’s performance is as poised and polished as you are likely to see from someone making their first main stage production. She and Finstrom take turns having the upper hand in their little spats and harmonize like they really are sisters. Jarecki and McMillan get to dance their way to romance the same way Olsen and Finstrom sing their way there.

Seeing the show for the second time, I have to say that the greatly enhanced role of Martha, the Columbia Inn’s resident busybody, is one of the great scene stealing roles of all time. Michelle Sorvik taking full advantage of the opportunity when she unloads in the crowd pleasing “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” Sorvik has the audience eating out of her hand the rest of the night. Kelly Killorin as the general’s precocious granddaughter Susan has to wait until the second act reprise of the song to have her moment in the spotlight and unveil a big brassy voice.

You can tell that John Schmidt’s gruff General Waverly is a marshmallow inside and you just wait for him to reveal it, just as you wait for the moment when Gabriel Mayfield’s laconic Ezekiel will climb up on a piano and have something more to say than just “Yup.”

Still from the musical number "Snow."

Still from the musical number “Snow.”

“Snow” is transformed from a charming quartet into an utterly delightful production number, with David Greenberg and Sara Wabrowetz (Mr. and Mrs. Snoring Man) taking the lead vocals. Comic relief is provided by stage manager Mike Nulty (John Crane) and the Betty Boop platinum blond pair of Rita (Bailey Boots) and Rhoda (Amber Burns).

The other performer I wanted to note was dancer Jesse Davis, who in show after show always stands out to me as a member of the precisely ensemble because he does not stand out. This oxymoronic compliment has to do with how hard it is to dance in the background and not pull attention from the leads, and the rarely commented upon art of having just the right look on your face, where you are not glancing at your feet or anybody else, while not just having a big grin plastered on your face. Davis definitely has this knack down.

One of the strengths of this production is how well everybody sounds during their duets, whether we are talking the two guys (“Let Yourself Go”), the two gals (“Sisters”), or the two couples (“Count Your Blessings” for Bob and Betty, “I Love a Piano” for Phil and Judy). The evening’s best harmonies come when Martha joins the Haynes sisters for “Falling Out of Love can Be Fun.”

White Christmas has been the movie that I have watched on Christmas Eve pretty much every year this century, so I am well on my way to having the whole thing memorized. Seeing the musical version of White Christmas after the movie must be similar to those who finally got to see the stage version of “The Sound of Music” after having fallen in love with the movie: different people are singing different songs at different points (e.g., Martha leads off on “What Can You Do with a General?” which is now in Act 1).

Two of the numbers from the early medley in the movie, “Let me Sing and I’m Happy” and “Blue Skies” become big numbers, while the Minstrel Number and “Choreography” disappear. Added to the mix are “Happy Holidays,” “Let Yourself Go,” “Love and Weather,” “I Love a Piano,” “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun,” “How Deep is the Ocean,” and “I’ve Got My Love Keep Me Warm,” so this version goes considerably deeper into the Irving Berlin songbook that the movie.

A behind-the-scenes look of a 'White Christmas' rehearsal.

A behind-the-scenes look of a ‘White Christmas’ rehearsal.

When I first saw this show in 2010 a large part of my initial reaction was “What are you doing to my beloved holiday classic?” This time I more willing to embrace the differences, because there are so many that you stop expecting a specific song or plot element and just enjoy watching the new approach. So, yes, this is a decidedly different version, but the basic elements are intact and recognizable, and you get a new surprise on the romantic front.

Be forewarned: at the end you will be somewhat surprised that the cast is suddenly doing their curtain call before the title tune closes the show. That is because Ferrell, in another smart move, has switched the final two numbers. Everybody should do it this way.

The set design by Curtis Phillips is basically the barn of the Columbia Inn where the big finale takes place, extended beyond the simple elegance of Vermont to Tyrolean grandeur. It has been a while since the orchestra has been this close to the audience and since director Patrick Colvin has a dozen musicians up there on the upper level balcony (hay loft?) the band sounds great.

The other locations are defined by set pieces whisked on and off by the cast. I was really impressed to see the sign, television camera, and especially the costumes worn by Rita and Rhoda for “Let Yourself Go,” because it speaks to serious production value of the show. However, I was momentarily confused at the start of the “Snow” number when the benches of the train were set up parallel to the audience rather than perpendicular, which made me think more of a waiting room back at the station rather than the interior of a car on the long ride to Vermont. It took me a while to get on the right track in that scene.

It might be Christmas time, but there were a couple of interesting Easter Eggs in this production, from the German shoulder who painted his helmet green so he can sneak over and attend the war time Christmas show, to the revelation that General Waverly has seniority of George S. Patton and must have commanded an entire Army, and not merely a division (in military parlance, it turns out General Waverly literally is a “General,” of the four star variety).

I would have said that the Playhouse show most likely to be revived would have been Cats which was actually the second show I ever reviewed for this paper. Technically I was right, since the Children’s Theatre put on a stellar kiddie-kat production last year. At this point, I would be willing to bet we will all enjoying White Christmas again before the end of this decade.

You might want to see about ordering tickets now…

Program Notes: It was a nice touch to have head shots of all twenty-six cast members in the program (which has gotten so large it now has page numbers). I took a look at the 2010 “White Christmas” program and noticed that this time around all the members of the assemble actually have characters names. Also, a tip of the stocking cap to Scott Hebert, whose cast note earned a chuckle for listing some of the few Playhouse shows he has NOT been a part of in recent seasons as his theatrical resume.

If you want to go: RUSH THE SHOW!

What: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”
Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.
When: Evening shows at 7:30pm, Matinees at 2:00pm
Shows run December 4 – 21 (Wednesday – Sunday) with matinees on Saturday Dec. 13 and 20; Sunday Dec. 7, 14 and 21; and an added show December 14 at 7:00pm

Every single person on Opening Night’s Rush List* got in to see the show. And guess what? We had room for a few more!

How? Get to the Playhouse and put your name on the Rush List*. Must be present to put your name on the list and to claim the tickets.

We can’t guarantee ticket or seat availability. Season ticket holders on the Rush List will have first priority if tickets become available.

*Rush lists begin one hour before show time.

——-

This review first appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on December 4, 2014 and was written by Lawrence Bernabo.

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One thought on “REVIEW: ‘White Christmas’ Delivers

  1. An amazing evening tonight ! The show was wonderful the cast did a wonderful job! White Chirstmas is our all time favorite I was surprised with Tickets from my daughter as a birthday gift, Best sago ever congrats to all who have been involved

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