The reviewers' opinions are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of TheatreLouisville.org.
If you're looking for a nostalgic, entertaining and well executed show to get you in the holiday mood, Derby Dinner Playhouse's production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas is just the ticket. Based upon the 1954 Paramount Pictures film starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye along with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, the stage version contains a few plot modifications which serve to simplify the story line but retains every bit of the film's irrepressible spirit. Judging from the glowing faces of rapt audience members, especially those who remember the post-World War II era, the show hits the mark.
Army buddies Bob Wallace (Brian Bowman) and Phil Davis (Matthew Brennan), fond of entertaining their cohorts even back in the service, become producers at war's end and set their sights on a sister act starring Judy (Melissa Carlile-Price) and Betty Haynes (Heather Paige Folsom). From their first meeting, it's clear that Phil and Judy are destined to become an item, as are Bob and Betty, albeit with a few more hiccups in their relationship along the way.
The ladies are off to a performing engagement at an inn in Vermont, and thanks to Phil's machinations, the gentlemen accompany them there. Much to their surprise, they find that the inn is owned by their former commanding officer, General Henry Waverly (David Myers). The General misses his army days and is all the more disconcerted because business is bad for lack of snow. To lift his spirits, Wallace and Davis devise a plan to have the soldiers in their company come up to Vermont with their families and surprise the General with a show on Christmas Eve. After some misunderstandings, the plan comes off successfully. Lo and behold, in another turn of good fortune for the inn, it begins to snow, and good cheer abounds as the audience is invited to join the cast in wrapping up the show by singing its title song.
Besides "White Christmas," the production contains no less than 19 musical numbers, each of which is performed impressively by a strong cast. The orchestra, consisting of a piano, trumpet, trombone, reeds, and percussion, plays from an unseen area above the stage. The instrumentalists are excellent, though at times I found them just a shade too loud in relation to the vocalists. The four principals are impressive in their demanding roles and are all in good voice. Duets, notably "Love and the Weather" and "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," both sung by Bob and Betty, are touching and well-rehearsed. As Martha Watson, General Waverly's busybody "concierge" at the inn, Carol Williams is perfectly cast; during her rendition of "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," she's especially convincing as a one-time Broadway star basking in her love of the stage. As flirty show-biz gals Rhoda and Rita, Sandra Rivera and Megan Muller are very coy and very funny.
Barbara F. Cullen's choreography is spectacular, and the entire cast executes it with energy and skill, playing to all of the audience on what is basically a round stage. As Phil and Judy take to the dance floor during "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," Brennan and Carlile-Price are a delight to watch. Anyone who has even contemplated singing, dancing and acting all at the same time and making it look effortless can't help but be filled with respect for those who do it well.
For sheer charm and adorable earnestness, however, seven-year-old Samantha Cutler takes the cake in the role of General Waverly's granddaughter, Susan. She acts, sings and dances with a degree of professionalism that rivals that of those several times her age without upstaging them at any time. One of the most aptly put lines in the show is spoken by Bob Wallace when he says to Susan, "You know, Sister, you're a prize." The role of Susan is played by Madelyn Steurer in alternate performances.
As the General, David Myers is fittingly stern and rather crusty, evoking the fact that he's quite out of his element in civilian life, at least at first. After all of the anticipation of the unveiling of Wallace's surprise for him, I was hoping for a greater reaction. Granted, the General has his particular brand of dignity to maintain, but through subtle work on his tone of voice, facial expressions and timing, Myers could show more convincingly how deeply the General is affected by the thoughtfulness of his men. This is a transformative moment for him; indeed, just before the snow begins to fall outside, the General experiences a thaw of sorts in the form of an epiphany in which crustiness is replaced by pride in his role as an innkeeper and by the realization of just how fond he is of Martha.
Butch Sager's costumes are just right for the era, with a variety of lovely, full-skirted dresses worn by the ladies. The army uniforms in the first scene seem to be painted with a broad brush, but they're entirely adequate. Lee Buckholz works the special magic of creating whole scenes with a few key set pieces (I love the suggestion of a barn interior with just a few strategically placed rafters!), and Ron Breedlove's lighting design creates moods very effectively.
Always one to advocate exposing young people to theatre, I should nevertheless caution those planning to bring children to the performance that it tends to be a bit long. From the opening of the buffet through the pre-show vocal entertainment provided by The Footnotes to the end of the musical, the entire experience runs nearly four-and-a-half hours. There were quite a few young audience members in evidence the evening I attended the show, and several of them were beginning to get restless by the end of the long first act, with still another act to go. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, however, and I imagine that Miss Cutler's performance was especially inspiring.
With a menu featuring holiday fare such as carved roast turkey, cornbread stuffing, green beans, and mashed potatoes with gravy, and with scrumptious-looking desserts and specialty drinks also available for purchase, Irving Berlin's White Christmas at Derby Dinner Playhouse aims to leave you warm and happy inside. Even almost six weeks before Christmas, the show played to quite a full house, so do be sure to reserve early.
Posted November 17, 2008