It was a Friday evening that would begin with the unexpected at Houston’s Hobby Center for the opening weekend of this season’s staged edition of Irving Berlin’s classic, White Christmas. First, arriving audience members would be pleasantly serenaded with holiday favorites from a wonderful choir in the grand lobby of the theatre. Once inside, another less pleasant surprise would present itself just as the curtain was about to go up. Somewhere in an upper balcony a loud cry of, “We need help up here!” suddenly shocked the room. Then came louder cries of, “Can someone call an ambulance?” and “Is there a doctor in the house?” There must have been several seated near us in the orchestra section as numerous individuals jumped up and quickly headed out in search of balcony access to help with the emergency. There were house apologies from the stage for the disturbing delay, but the audience remained seated and calm until about twenty minutes later when it was announced the show would begin.
What could be more calming than Berlin’s soothing Overture to this musical that is so well-known to lovers of the memorable White Christmas film on which the show is based. And calming it was, in the capable hands of Music Director/Conductor, Jeff Rizzo, and his fine orchestra. Then, just as in the film, the show opens on a World War II battlefield.
There, two soldiers named Bob Wallace (John Scherer), and Phil Davis (Matt Loehr), had help from a hilarious one-man band on their makeshift stage as they led a bit of merry entertainment for their fellow troops of the 151st Division, with distant bombs exploding all the while on that Christmas Eve in 1944. It is only a hunch, but some of the songs and dialogue that followed seemed a bit rushed as though a directorial decision (Bruce Lumpkin) might possibly have been made in order to make up the missing twenty minutes of the earlier delay. That first seemed a possibility during the opening scene as Scherer sang the poignant title tune at a rather brisk pace considering the song was really a serious and reflective moment for the lonely and homesick soldiers in the film. But upon reflection I have decided it is unwise to compare the perfection of the film to the earnest efforts of these eager performers in their quest to capture the essence of the great music and pleasant story for the seasonal enjoyment of holiday audiences. Both concepts have their place, and I can assure readers that before this month of December ends I will be enjoying visits with my family in New York and continuing a long annual tradition of viewing the classic film version.
The plot of the show (book by David Ives & Paul Blake) has been adjusted here and there for the stage, while some Berlin tunes have been added and others omitted. But the story line still centers on the soldier’s wartime commander, General Waverly (Kevin Cooney), who has been reluctantly retired from the army and subsequently moved on to running his own Vermont country inn. That inn has a lovely cutaway scenic design from Anna Louizos, with tasteful interior and shadowy, candle lit, exterior lighting by designer, Richard Winkler. There are also sharp, split-scene sets for both backstage dressing rooms and a pairing of Ed Sullivan’s offices with the switchboard at the inn.
The general has a bit of help with his new innkeeper chores from his feisty assistant, Martha (Carol Swarbrick), and sweet granddaughter, Susan (Erin Cearlock).
Eight year-old Miss Cearlock, by the way, is another one of the surprises in the show.
With stage presence and perfect enunciation well beyond her years, she has vocal talent to match when she belts out a show-stopping version of, “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” And speaking of “belters,” Miss Swarbrick has Mermanesque power when she rockets off her own version of that same song to strong approval from the audience.
Meanwhile the post-war talents of Wallace & Davis have landed them on the Ed Sullivan show for a knock-out rendition of “Let Yourself Go,” that explodes with polka dot dresses, lime-green suits, (costumes by Carrie Robbins), and great choreography from designer, Mary Jane Houdina, who (I am proud to say), is a fellow member of The Lambs Club in New York.
Of course a dual love story emerges as Bob and Phil meet the sister act of Betty (Michelle Dejean) and Judy (Danette Holden), and they all end up in Vermont to do a big show for the old army pals in an effort to save the general’s struggling inn.
Of course the well-known song, “Sisters,” is performed, first by the gals (with a brassy coyness that could have been toned down), and later by the guys (in a drag-gag that lacked the clear motivation in the film).
As those romances develop, there was the inclusion of a deservedly remote Berlin tune titled, “Love & the Weather,” with a duet from Betty and Bob. That song, in my opinion, could have been left on the cutting room floor. The popular song, “Snow,” seemed to lose some of its simple charms by being overproduced here with another speedy tempo and a large cast of passengers singing too loudly on a train. The touching song, “What Do You Do With a General?” appeared to miss the sweet sentimentality to which it is entitled. Much more pleasing was the tender duet of “Count Your Blessings,” from Bob and Betty. As for the lovely song, “Blue Skies,” it seemed out of place somehow being inserted here just as Bob has experienced rejection by Betty. The dancers did not even wear tap shoes, and in my opinion that number should have been cut as well.
Act Two made up for those missing taps with the dazzling and sensational, “I Love a Piano,” with the full ensemble tapping their brains out and winning cheers from the crowd.
Longtime Houston theatre veteran, Jay Tribble, got into the act as well, while performing a few spry steps in his role as a cantankerous old stagehand. Another Act Two treat was the adorable trio from Martha, Betty and Judy of, “Falling Out of Love,” a song of which I was previously unaware. This very cute number seemed like a lost Berlin treasure and was very well performed. And speaking of cute, there is a running gag in the show with backstage floosies named Rita (Elise Kinnon), and Rhoda (Jessie Wildman), two party girls with extreme Brooklyn accents, and boy do they keep the laughs coming.
Of course all ends well as Bob and Betty reconcile after her elegant Regency Room performance of “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” is supplemented by the longing of his vocal counterpoint with, “How Deep is the Ocean.” Back at the inn the show must go on and it does so in glamorous finalestyle. Oh, those gorgeous Christmas-red costumes and that solid ensemble reprise of “White Christmas!” But there was still more with a magical storm that filled the entire theatre with falling snow that anointed both cast and audience with the joy of the season. Why not go see for yourself?
WHITE CHRISTMAS continues through December 18th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, at 7:30 p.m., on Friday & Saturday at 8 p.m., and on both Saturday & Sunday afternoons with 2p.m. matinees. For tickets (starting at just $24) visit the website at www.TUTS.com, or call (713) 558-8887 locally and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston). For a preview peek readers may want to visit You Tube at the link below: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIaRNx3U5U0