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A Spirited Holiday:

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White Christmas: The Musical
Thalian Association
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
12/9 – 12 and 16 -1 9; 8 p.m. or 3 p.m. Sunday matinees
Tickets: $22-$25

SISTER ACT: Alecia Bell Vanderhaar plays Betty Haynes and Janna Murray plays Judy Haynes in Thalian Association’s “White Christmas,” opening this week. Photo by Chris Ochs.

Over 40 actors. Over a dozen songs. Hand over fist brimming with entertainment. Thalian Association will debut Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas: The Musical” just in time for the holiday season.

“Pulling all of this together was extremely challenging,” Tom Briggs, Thalian Association’s artistic director, says. With the amount of talent onstage, there had to be a bevy of people available at all times and in every department to ensure beauty and grace wrapped up this Christmas classic to a glittering T. With director and choreographer David Loudermilk focused on performances, Briggs worked behind the scenes as producer. “If I hadn’t had utter faith in the designers, I’d have thrown myself into the Cape Fear River a month ago!” he jokes.

The costumes alone required three hands—ones privy to researching the 1954 timeline of the show. “Debbie Scheu, Charlotte Safrit and David Kratzer really have [had] their work cut out for them,” Briggs continues. “They’ve built many of the costumes from scratch, as well as gathered vintage clothing. Because the story takes place in a showbiz milieu, several production numbers call for everyone to be in the same costume [simultaneously].”

“White Christmas” follows two soldiers-turned-entertainers, originally played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the movie, during a tour and into romantic relationships with two singing sisters. Since its debut, “White Christmas” has become the quintessential uplift to the whirlwind of the holiday season.

“I remember seeing the movie on TV as a youngster,” Briggs explains, “and because I was a big song-and-dance kid, it was the production numbers that really grabbed me.”

Its live counterpart debuted as a play in 2004 in San Francisco, and received numerous Tony nominations and Drama Desk nods in 2009. Like the film version, “Sisters,” “Snow,” “Happy Holiday” and others are performed live and hail the iconic American composer, Irving Berlin. Berlin actually wrote the song in the ‘40s, and watched the instantaneous hit morph into an entire production a decade later.

“As Jerome Kern famously opined, ‘Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music,’” Briggs quotes. “It’s extraordinary that this Russian-Jewish immigrant, for whom English was a second language, became the default voice of American popular music in the 20th century. He was so proud of his adopted country that his patriotism and enthusiasm just poured out in his songs. It’s somewhat ironic that a Jew wrote ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Easter Parade,’ but he just loved everything American—every tradition, every class of people—and those people all responded in kind to his songs and still do. I mean, who can listen to ‘God Bless America’ and not get a little bit verklempt?”

While the music carries much of the production and will be played by a live orchestra, the story itself is rife with richness. It extends beyond generational boundaries, too.
“Christmas is a time when we reach out to others in need,” Briggs says, “and examine our own capacity to love. That’s a big part of the theme of ‘White Christmas.’”

Lead roles belong to Christopher Rickert as Bob Wallace and David Lorek as Phil Davis. The Haynes sisters will be played by two veterans on the scene, Alecia Bell Vanderhaar and Janna Murray, who also happen to be making their debut in primary roles.

“Chris and David are two of the best singers around,” Briggs boasts. “Alecia is known for her beautiful, crystalline voice, and Janna is a great dancer.”

Also on the bill, Steve Gallian as General Waverly, who plays the military leader with “customary aplomb, warmth and authority,” according to Briggs. He delivers powerful material that won’t leave anyone dry-eyed and stoic.

“The first time Steve did Waverly’s speech to his troops on the front during WWII, people were weeping,” Briggs explains of rehearsal. “Now, I tend to cry at a good card trick, but to see some of our burly, manly-men cast members getting choked up [is] a real testament to both the power of the material and Steve’s commitment to it. The biggest challenge has been not bawling at Waverly’s two speeches.”

The relationships of the characters and the message carried throughout the play keep its value in high regard. “I don’t think honest sentiment ever goes out of style,” Briggs claims. “Nor, for that matter, does good old-fashioned entertainment, which ‘White Christmas’ has to spare.”

During a time when our worries are heightened by a recession and other mounting stresses, we can always look toward a creative community to catapult us into a more fantastical world. That’s the best gift any performance artist can provide this holiday.

“I really believe in the power of live theater to transform us,” he says. “To be afforded two hours during which to forget about the job search, the mortgage payment, the lack of student loans, the political hate-mongering, the ridiculous bullying, and to be reminded, as the song says, ‘to count your blessings’—well, to me that represents the true spirit of Christmas.”

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