Irving Berlin's White Christmas
Also see Brian's review of Raised by Humans
White Christmas is the story of Bob Wallace (Jeff Pierce) and Phil Davis (Larry Aguilar), a successful song and dance team, and their recent acquaintances Betty (Emily Melville) and Judy Hanes (Stevie Nichols), sisters whose own musical routines (not to mention pretty faces and girlish figures) are beginning to attract the attention of audiencesand gentlemen. The four characters find themselves attempting to save a Vermont inn from financial ruin by staging an elaborate Christmas production ... with just five days of rehearsal time! The 1954 film version of the musical memorably starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen; and the actors assembled by Albuquerque Little Theatre do a good job of filling the tap-shoes of the greats.
The play opens ten years before it ends, "somewhere on the Western Front of World War II, Christmas Eve, 1944." While the musical is remembered for its antics and festive dance numbers, two of the most memorable moments in this production are both solemn and heartfelt. Shortly after the show opens in a military camp, General Waverly (Arthur Alpert) delivers the first of his two monologues, this one to enlisted troops, hoping for the end of the war and the safety of the soldiers under his command (Bob and Phil among them). Though he is one of the only cast members not featured in multiple memorable dance numbers, Alpert's portrayal of General Waverly is so touching and human that audiences will quickly understand why his soldiers remain loyally indebted to him ten years after the war is over.
Therefore, when Bob and Phil learn that Waverly's retirement project (the Vermont inn) is floundering, due in large part to a snowless ski season, they spring into action with the help of their newfound female companions and a number of choristers willing to brave holiday travel. As the show quickly changes locales, moving from battlefield to "Ed Sullivan Show" to New York bar to a moving train bound for rural Vermont, the costume design of Erin K. Moots takes center stage. Costuming a cast of more than thirty, Moots' choices are both accurate portrayals of 1950s fashion and aesthetically tailored to fit each member of the large cast.
While the show contains several highly recognizable songs ("Happy Holiday," "Blue Skies," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and of course, "White Christmas") there is a rather conspicuous lack of tap-dancing in the first act. Quickly rectified in the first number of the second act, it becomes clear that many of the actors assembled in this production are not completely comfortable dancers. Wisely, they are bolstered by the guest artistry of students from the Fishback Studio of the Dance who enable the choreographic vision of Stephanie Burch to materialize.
Though fans of the film will inevitably remember the pizazz of Crosby and Kaye, Avery's cast seems most at home in peaceful, heartfelt moments. Nearing the end of act one, Bob (Equity actor Jeff Pierce) and Betty (Emily Melville, reprising her role for the second year) realize that they just might have feelings for each other in the lullaby-esque "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep." As they spend quiet moments together, the subtle work onstage is carefully underscored by Darby Fegan's impressive ten-piece orchestra. When the actors are heeding the words sung at the top of the show, "let yourself go and relax," the delightful nostalgic tone of Berlin's musical is crystal clear.
Albuquerque Little Theatre has given this production a rating of "G" and indeed, there were some young people in the audience on the day that I saw the production. However, I hope more students will have the opportunity to see the musical before it closes on Christmas Eve. Like many musicals of the 1950s, it provides a foundation for discussions about war and the individuals that make up what Tom Brokaw called, "the greatest generation."
Irving Berlin's White Christmas by Irving Berlin, David Ives and Paul Blake is presented by Albuquerque Little Theatre and directed by Henry Avery with musical direction by Darby Fegan and choreography by Stephanie Burch. The show runs through December 24, 2010, at the historic Albuquerque Little Theatre, 224 San Pasquale Street SW, just South of Old Town. Show times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 2 PM and a special Christmas Eve matinee at 1 PM on December 24. Tickets are $24, with discounts for students, children and seniors. For reservations call 505-242-4750 or visit www.albuquerquelittletheatre.org.