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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Holiday Review Round Up #1
White Christmas at the 5th Avenue and
Sister's Christmas Catechism at ACT Theatre

White Christmas
Cast of White Christmas
No patriotic, Americana-loving audience member in the USA is likely to be unfamiliar with the song "White Christmas" written in 1942 by great American tunesmith Irving Berlin for the film Holiday Inn starring Bing Crosby, and first re-utilized in White Christmas the film, also starring crooner Crosby. That film, by virtue of countless television airings and preserved since on tape and DVD, was faithfully adapted for the stage several years back by David Ives and Paul Blake. The team tweaked some of the hokier aspects out of it, and found better song placements for the film songs and ways to sneak in some other Berlin standards (and obscurities). The 5th Avenue Theatre mounted the show for the holidays back in 2006, and many components of that same production repeat this year, making the production (about a pair of ex-GIs turned showmen plotting a big reunion in honor of their former commanding officer at the Vermont inn he runs) something like the theatrical equivalent of re-gifting, though far more pleasurable to receive.

Director David Armstrong and co-director/choreographer James Rocco repeat their sharp efforts with returning cast members Michael Gruber (in Crosby's role of seasoned song and dance man Bob Wallace), Christina Saffron Ashford as his on again/off again love interest Betty Haynes, Greg McCormick Allen as Wallace's younger, wackier side-kick Phil Davis, Carol Swarbrick as Martha Watson, the inn housekeeper cum retired entertainer, and always delightful veteran character actor Clayton Corzatte as old as the hills handyman Ezekiel (who garners some of the show's biggest laughs as he snail paces his way through every entrance and exit). New principals in the mix are Taryn Darr as younger Haynes sister Judy (love interest for Davis), Frank Corrado as General Waverly, and young Lauren Carlos (who alternates with Drea Gordon) as the general's precocious granddaughter Susan. Also adding cheer to this holiday package in lesser roles are such redoubtable Seattle stage regulars as Richard Gray, Billie Wildrick (channeling Miss Adelaide as a vampy chorine), Cheryl Massey Peters and Allen Galli. As secondary lead couple, Allen and Darr are a show-stealing pair.

Allen is possibly Seattle's most versatile song and dance man in the style of the grand Hollywood musical, here a bit Astaire, there a bit Gene Kelly, and add in some Donald O'Connor. Darr, who has matured into a winning and winsome leading lady in a decade or so of progressively more challenging local roles, is his perfect match, and they make you believe "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" and head up the showstopping "I Love A Piano" duet. Gruber and Saffron Ashford, pros all the way, don't bring much snap to the Bob/Betty coupling, though neither can do any wrong in their vocals or dance moves. Saffron Ashford plays Betty a bit too lightly, so her falling out with Gruber's Bob is never convincing. Corrado is just right as the imperious old General with a heart of gold, and if possible, Swarbrick's Martha is an even wryer and more humorous creation than before, not to mention being an old-school Broadway belter on "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." Young Miss Carlos neatly handles Susan's transition from shy and studious to a sassy, brassy show-biz kid, and her reprise of "Let Me Sing" is a charming crowd-pleaser.

Anna Louizos' sets have held up well, and are still impressive, ditto Carrie Robbins' costumes and Tom Sturges' lighting design. Musical Director James May and his big band keep the Berlin standards sounding sensational.

Oh, and it does snow in the house, in ample amounts (after all there is a major plot tangent about no snow in Vermont in December) and it draws oohs and ahs as you would expect. Watching White Christmas at home on TV has its benefits, but the show is well worth a first-look on stage, or indeed a return if you are feeling nostalgic.

White Christmas runs Tuesdays-Sundays through December 30 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue, Seattle; $20-$93.50 (206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org.

Photo: Chris Bennion

Sister's Christmas Catechism
Aubrey Manning and audience participant
Sister's Christmas Catechism has played previously at ACT Theatre (record-setting longtime home of selfsame playwright Maripat Donovan's Late Night Catechism) but it was new to me. And it is a bona-fide laugh riot, no matter what your denomination (or lack thereof).

Set in Sister's own holiday decoration-strewn parochial school classroom, the pre-show includes several Christmas carols by a different choir at each performance; the choir at the show I caught was the sweet-voiced, benign looking ChoralSounds Northwest, which also performs during the body of the show. The Sister takes over, and look out audience members, she's likely to call on you (keeping your hands out of your pockets helps). Her main task is to create a living nativity before taking on "Forensic Files goes to Bethlehem" which tries to unravel whatever happened to the Magi's gold.

Plot heavy it's not, but entertaining? You bet your rosary! Aubrey Manning as Sister (a long-run vet of the original Late Night Catechism) is a miraculously wonderful performer, as directed by Marc Silvia, and a tireless one what with the amount of improv she must take on every night, as well as the variations in behavior from different audience members each performance. It would be worth it to catch the show again just because Manning is so engaging and funny. Touching on comments about nearly everything you can imagine (even the vintage "Dick Van Dyke Show" episode about the walnuts in the closet, and the BBC hit sci-fi show "Torchwood") she singlehandedly put me in the Christmas spirit. This is a show for all ages, except the very young, and I heartily recommended as a holiday must-see.

Sister's Christmas Catechism runs at ACT Theatre, downtown Seattle at 7th & Union, through January 3, 2010. For tickets call (206) 292-7676 or visit www.acttheatre.org.

Photo: Ben Rapson

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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