Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Irving Berlin's White Christmas
Zao Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, Bat Boy: The Musical, and Little Shop of Horrors

Trent Rasmussen, Gina Kim, Brianne Gobeski,
and Chris Fidler

Photo by Kristy Velesko
Based on the beloved classic 1954 movie musical of the same name, Irving Berlin's White Christmas is a heartwarming and nostalgic show chock-full of classic Berlin tunes and a storyline that beautifully captures the joy of the holiday season. The stage production, first produced in 2000, has become a perennial favorite of regional theatre companies with two presenting the show here in the Phoenix area this holiday season. Zao Theatre's production radiates warmth, joy, and holiday festiveness, with a great cast, impressive choreography, and crisp direction.

Set in 1954, the plot focuses on Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, two men who met in the Army and are now a successful showbiz duo. Once Bob and Phil discover that their former commanding officer, General Waverly, is struggling after sinking all of his money into an inn in Vermont (due to the fact there is no snow so there are no guests for the winter season), Bob and Phil decide to put on a holiday show to bring people to the inn and to show their appreciation for the man who once led them through the war. Along the way, Bob and Phil team up both professionally and romantically with the Haynes sisters, Betty and Judy. As romantic sparks fly, misunderstandings and comedy ensue, and the characters see how the power of love and generosity can create a perfect white Christmas.

The book by David Ives and Paul Blake fleshes out the film screenplay to expand the characters while also excising some busy plot elements from the movie to streamline the story and keep the pace brisk. They've also added a few additional Irving Berlin songs, including "How Deep is the Ocean," "I Love a Piano," and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," while cutting the film's minstrel segment.

Director Michael E. Bryce does a wonderful job ensuring his cast create realistic characters, that the comic moments don't overpower the dramatic ones, and that the show moves along with well-choreographed scene changes. With several numbers that build into striking showstopping moments, Laura Christian's choreography is excellent, energetic, and danced quite well by the large cast.

The cast are excellent. Trent Rasmussen and Chris Fidler create a realistic pair of performing friends as Bob and Phil, respectively. Rasmussen has the right blend of charisma, warmth, and vulnerability as Bob, with rich vocals that shine on heartfelt renditions of "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)," "How Deep is the Ocean," and "White Christmas." Fidler is funny and comical as the confident and charismatic Phil. His singing shines, his dance steps are professional, and he creates an entirely lovable character.

As Betty and Judy Haynes, Gina Kim and Brianne Gobeski have gorgeous singing voices, warmth in their line delivery, and rich clarity in their portrayals that beautifully capture the essence of sisterhood. Kim's vocals soar on her solos and Gobeski exudes warmth and charm. In the supporting cast, Clayton Marlowe embodies the dignity and strength of General Waverly. As Martha Watson, the woman who is helping Waverly run the inn, MJ Okawa is bright, sassy, and witty; her brassy and bold singing voice shines on her solos. With a wonderful stage presence, good comic timing, and bold line readings, Kaylee Forth is excellent as Waverly's granddaughter Susan. The large ensemble cast portray a mix of characters with vibrant and spirited performances.

While musical tracks are used, they are quite good and the entire cast deliver rich harmonies and gorgeous vocals under James May's music direction. The scenic design by J. Michael Sanders uses a frame of a barn and a few small set elements, along with projections of nostalgic photos in Bryce's media design, to quickly and effectively delineate the location for each scene. The lighting design by Sharyn Sheffer works quite well to depict the bright scenes set during the day and the cool blue moments at night, along with lovely pops of colors for the many performance numbers in the show. There are dozens of costumes in the production, and the costume designs by Brianne Gobeski, Sarai Phillips-Dunlap, Dawn Gunderson, and Rebecca Bryce deliver a rich assortment of period dresses, gowns and suits. John Schoenwolf's sound design ensures the vocals are clear as well as providing a few appropriate sound effects.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas is a holiday cinema classic with a plot that is both compelling and endearing and a wonderful collection of memorable songs. With a great cast, fantastic choreography, sure-footed direction, and rich creative elements, Zao Theatre's production evokes the warmth, sentimentality, and magic associated with the holiday season.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas runs through December 16, 2023, at Zao Theatre, 6338 South King Ranch Road, Gold Canyon AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 480-924-5122

Director& Media Design: Michael E. Bryce
Music Director: James May
Choreographer: Laura Christian
Scenic Design: J. Michael Sanders
Lighting Design: Sharyn Sheffer
Sound Design: John Schoenwolf
Costume Design: Brianne Gobeski, Sarai Phillips-Dunlap, Dawn Gunderson, Rebecca Bryce Stage Manager: Doug Ulmer

Bob Wallace: Trent Rasmussen
Phil Davis: Chris Fidler
Betty Haynes: Gina Kim
Judy Haynes: Brianne Gobeski
General Henry Waverly: Clayton Marlowe
Martha Watson: MJ Okawa
Susan Waverly: Kaylee Forth
Ezekiel Foster: Stacey Blake
Ralph Sheldrake: Eddie Kesner
Tessie: Randi Jill Condit
Mike: Michael Leeth
Rita: Rebecca Bryce
Rhoda: Ashley Bauer
Dance Ensemble: Shanti Okawa (dance captain), Ashley Bauer, Maxwell Brown, Rebecca Bryce, Sophie-Leigh Connay, Tyler Galley, Dawn Gunderson, Chloe Kesner, Molly Kesner, Olivia Kesner, Carah Mollerup, Julian Pena, Nathan Pena, Robyn Tye-Lennex
Ensemble: Mary Esther Braswell, Randi Jill Condit, Tanner Duncan, Eddie Kesner, Michael Leeth, Turner McKenzie, Sarai Phillips-Dunlap, Jennifer Webb