Monday, November 28, 2022

"White Christmas" at DalekoArts

Taking a break from their usual tradition of original holiday* comedy plays, DalekoArts is presenting the 2008 musical adaptation of the beloved 1954 move White Christmas. It may be the biggest musical they've ever done on their intimate stage in terms of size and scope. But as usual, they've created something warm, homey, and intimate out of this big show. A fantastic hard-working cast of just 13 (less than half of the original Broadway cast), a small but mighty off-stage five-piece orchestra, and simple yet effective design bring this familiar heart-warming story to life. It simply isn't Christmas without White Christmas, and to see it live at DalekoArts, after a drive through the countryside full of lights, is a treat indeed. It plays Thursdays through Sundays until December 18, and is playing in rep with the original holiday comedy White Chrismith on Sundays through Mondays. It features popular character Chris Smith from past original comedies, so they found a way to continue the tradition and do something new.

White Christmas is my favorite Christmas movie (along with Love Actually), one that I've seen dozens of times. Each song, each costume, each moment is iconic in my mind. And while I might have a few quibbles, book writers David Ives and Paul Blake have really done a wonderful job of adapting the movie into a stage musical. They've removed a few songs (I miss "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army") and added some additional Irving Berlin songs ("Love and the Weather," "How Deep is the Ocean"). The plot is pretty much the same, with a few tweaks. Gone is Betty and Judy's escape out the window of the club, and Betty's misunderstanding of Bob's motives has changed form (and is, if possible, even weaker - but drama must be created to have that beautiful reunion). A few other things have been tightened up or skipped over, but fans of the movie will not be displeased. When you get right down to it, the plot is pretty typical romantic comedy/musical theater fare (I hate you - I love you - I hate you - I love you!), but the plot is really just an excuse for all that fabulous dancing, music, and snow.**

Co-founder and Artistic Director Amanda White directs this fantastic cast, and translates the big show to the small stage quite well. Locations and chronology are clear as we smoothly move from one location to the next, and the focus is on the love stories, the friendships, and the holiday charm. Ben Thietje is a wonderful Bob Wallace (who knew he was such a crooner?!), with a warm and pleasant voice and that perfect mix of cynicism and hope. Fresh from playing the Gene Kelly role in Lakeshore Players' Singin' in the Rain, Tommy McCarthy ably steps into Danny Kaye's shoes as Phil Davis, with the necessary vocals, dancing skills, and charisma. This Wallace and Davis duo is well matched in their romantic partners Audrey Johnson and Abby Holstrom as the Hanes sisters; Audrey gorgeously sings those songs made famous by Rosemary Clooney, and Abby is a fantastic dancer in addition to singer. The strong supporting cast includes Warren Sampson as the lovable grouch of a General; the always entertaining Shanan Custer as the housekeeper Martha, who in this version is a former Broadway star (which, fortunately for us, allows Shanan to show off more of her skills); Ryan Robert Nelson, man of many voices from suave TV producer to taciturn farm hand; ensemble members Dillon Baxendell, Anne Elizabeth Brown, Caitlin Featherstone, Annika Isbell, and Brendan Veerman as chorus dancers and many other characters; and smallest but not least, eight-year old Eve Scharback, so stinkin' cute as the General's granddaughter that she will indeed "start you laughing, start you crying, and make you homesick."

show rehearsal in the barn (photo by Dan Norman)
The story happens in many locations, but here they've made the wise choice of having a completely bare stage, to take advantage of as much space as possible and provide a neutral backdrop that works for all locations. Wood paneling and rafters make it feel like we're in the barn at the inn, and simple projections on a large movie screen at the back of the space tell us when we're in a club or a dressing room or the lobby of the inn. The only set pieces are a collection of rustic wooden boxes moved around, sometimes with a decorative front piece, to represent a piano, hotel reception desk, or tables and chairs. The whole thing has a charming DIY feel. The huge replicas of old timey postcards adorning the walls amp up the nostalgic holiday charm, and the pre-show credits displayed on the screen are a nod to the movie. (Scenic design by Robin McIntyre, projection design by Peter Morrow.)

As I mentioned, I'm obsessed with the iconic costumes from the movie, but rather than trying to replicate them exactly, costume designer Cynthia Wade Forsgren has created original costumes that are similar in feel - 50s era dresses from casual to fancy, suits and tuxes, and chorus costumes (even a cleverly reversible black and white skirt). And we even get the stunning red velvet finale costumes.

This Irving Berlin score is chock full of familiar songs from the movie and elsewhere, and they sound lovely as sung by the cast (pleasantly unmiked, except for the youngest, with great acoustics in the intimate space) and played by the band, conducted by Rita Sapp, with music direction by Christopher J. Stordalen. I only wish we could see the band, but there's simply no space. But there is enough space for some terrific dance numbers choreographed by Lauri Kraft; it may be only 8 people dancing instead of 18, but you still get the full effect and it never feels crowded.

If you're a fan of the movie White Christmas, or of Irving Berlin, or of big musicals done on a smaller scale, or of long drives through the festive winter countryside, don't miss DalekoArts' wonderfully nostalgic and intimate production of White Christmas, playing now through December 18.

the cast of White Christmas (photo by Dan Norman)

*Click here for reviews of all of the holiday shows I've seen this year.

**Plot summary borrowed from my review of the Ordway's 2016 production.