Photos by Kevin White
It’s the week before Thanksgiving, but the Christmas spirit is undeniably in the air. Huge ribbons and a decorated tree adorn the lobby of the Walton Arts Center, where audiences Tuesday night got the first glimpse of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, a touring production that runs through the weekend.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Audience members familiar with the 1954 movie starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye were served the same, ever-thin storyline that binds together several solid singing and dancing numbers. But the spectacle of this live production, supported by an orchestra, was a perfectly festive prelude to the holiday season.
The two lead male characters, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, are former Army buddies who have since developed into well-known performers. They connect with sisters Judy and Betty Haynes, who are trying to make their own way in show business. Through some scheming, they all end up in Vermont at an inn owned by the guys’ former military general. There, they plan and rehearse a show to save the inn, a business at risk partly because of unseasonably warm temperatures in the days before Christmas.
This stage musical retains the elements from that earlier era, making allowable the innocence and camp that would sometimes otherwise seem to be too much. The family-friendly show runs about two and a half hours, with intermission.
The main characters have many ups and downs and misunderstandings as they as they navigate romantic relationships. There are sparks from the start with Phil (David Elder) and Judy (Meredith Patterson). But Bob (James Clow) and Betty (Trista Moldovan) get off to a much shakier start.
In a particularly funny scene, the group is on the train to Vermont, which is a surprise to Bob, who thinks they’re going to Miami. One passenger is rather annoying with his snoring, but then he awakens suddenly and joins in the song, “Snow.” The man bounces up and down in his seat as he sings, and more people enter the train car, wearing coats, hats and scarves. When the group arrives, however, the December temperatures in Vermont are in the 70s.
As Bob, Phil, the Haynes sisters and the rest of the cast prepare to put on a Christmas show to bring business to the inn, they rehearse in the barn, where the stage manager’s office is literally in the pigsty. Cliff Bemis, who plays the snoring man, also portrays Ezekiel, the farmhand who becomes a stagehand. He speaks very few words, but his demeanor is hilarious.
Among the best songs of the show is “Sisters,” a sweet, sassy tune performed by Judy and Betty early on — and later reprised by Bob and Phil. Both times, the pairs dance with gigantic fans made from blue feathers. And, Betty finally gets a chance to break away from the sister act for a solo gig, singing the sultry tune “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”
There were so many great costumes, all of them perfectly suited to the particular number. Whether in ensemble pieces or a basic couple dance, the choreography, by Randy Skinner, also was spectacular and well-done throughout the show. This show is worth seeing just for the dancing.
In an early number on an Ed Sullivan Show appearance, singing “Happy Holiday” and “Let Yourself Go,” the guys were dressed in lime green suits and shoes, with the women in bright pink dresses. Then, the first act ended with a visually stunning number. All dressed in white suits, shorts and fedora hats, they sang and danced to the very jazzy “Blue Skies.” This was one of the best numbers.
One number that seemed out of place in this show turned out to be among the most impressive. “I Love a Piano” started the second act, with Phil and Judy singing a duet as they tap danced around a miniature grand piano. Fourteen other dancers joined them for a wonderfully complex, tap-dancing treat.
Among the funniest characters was Martha Watson (Ruth Williamson), the lady in charge of the inn. She dispensed her dry humor throughout, and showed off her beautiful singing voice on “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”
At the end, they all gather around a giant Christmas tree, many of them dressed in red outfits, trimmed in white. It’s a saccharine scene perfectly suitable for a snow globe, as they sing “White Christmas” and snowflakes fall from above. But it illustrates the pure joy and delight that the season can bring.
These shows also tend to have moments and sentiments that linger. From this one, it’s the song that Bob sings to young Susan, played by Shannon Harrington, as she tries to find sleep. He tells her that, when worried and unable to sleep, one should count his blessings rather than sheep. That mantra could prove useful through the holidays and beyond.
Performances of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas continue through Sunday at the Walton Arts Center. For tickets and information, call (479) 443-5600 or visit the website at waltonartscenter.org/.