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Theater

What Community Theatre Should Be:

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

SONG-AND-DANCE TEAM: Christopher Rickert and David Lorek perform as the Wallace and Davis entertainment duo in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas: The Musical.” Photo by Chris Ochs.

“White Christmas,” the stage adaptation of Irving Berlin’s quintessential Christmas song and the 1954 film, is an ambitious production for Thalian Association. The well-loved classic, remembered from performances by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, comes with high expectations. Set in 1954, “White Christmas” chronicles the lives of Bob Wallace (Christopher Rickert) and Phil Davis (David Lorek), a song-and-dance team during the boom following World War II. Life after the army has been good to them and their buddies (who seem to be employed everywhere these two turn up). Davis, the classic philanderer, cannot understand why his best friend can’t get a date:  He’s handsome. He’s famous. What’s not to love?  He and his current flame, Judy Haynes (Janna Murray), hatch a plan to set up Wallace with Judy’s sister, Betty (Alecia Bell Vanderhaar). After boarding the wrong train under false pretenses, a romantic comedy of errors begins. The four find themselves at a struggling Vermont inn, surprisingly owned by the men’s former army general.

When considering a production like this, one can‘t help but wonder, “Where are you going to find someone who sings like Bing Crosby?” Though Christopher Rickert as Bob Wallace doesn’t sound like Crosby (because no one can), he has a strong, beautiful voice and carries the show well. This is not the first time Rickert has been charged with the task of re-creating a famous film role to a live audience; his performance as Ash in “Evil Dead” (as Bruce Campbell) also necessitated him finding the character on his own and building something more than just a parody of a film star. Instead of playing Crosby,  he  fleshes out Bob Wallace, the successful but lonely star, and convinces us that he is completely baffled by women—in particular Betty. Rickert deserves a lot of credit for rising to this challenge.

David Lorek plays Phil Davis (Danny Kaye’s character) with a charming, funny and plagued fascination with women. The stage adaptation has removed the film’s Danny Kaye double-speak scenes, allowing the actor to embrace the role, rather than attempt to reproduce Kaye’s signature work.

The Haynes sisters, Betty and Judy, are remembered by many as the Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen characters. Vanderharr resembles a young Rosemary Clooney. Murray bounces on to the stage and just radiates joy. Their collective struggle to succeed in the difficult world of show business, while balancing the restrictive expectations for young women in the 1950’s is very real. If anything, their plight made me grateful to live now and not then.

The cast of nearly 40 has a lot of stand out performances. Michelle Reiff as Martha Watson, the former Broadway luminary now working at a remote Vermont inn, brought the house down with “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” This showstopper could only be topped by the über-cuteness of Abby Winner (playing Susan Waverly, granddaughter to General Waverly) singing the same song in act two. With long blonde hair, bobby socks and pretty dresses, Winner captured the audiences’ hearts the minute she walked onstage.

Harry Griffin as Ezekiel Foster, the old retainer, had the audience laughing every time he opened his mouth, while Mike Thompson, the stage manager for Wallace and Davis’ productions, just sparkled. More importantly, the ensemble scenes were fun! Big dance numbers filled the stage with people and children to re-create the pageant-like splendor of the end of the big-studio era in film. Sadly, we don’t have musicals in films on that scale anymore. David T. Loudermilk, (director and choreographer) got everyone moving and looking good. And what is an accomplishment that is when dealing with a cast with a 60-year age range!

Though the technical team had their work cut out for them, they saw it through. The costumers, Debbie Sheu and Charlotte Safrit, must have been sewing around the clock to accommodate all the wardrobe changes. From the army uniforms, to cartwheel dresses, to the ensemble dancers, to the Oxydol-box twins, they must have produced several hundred costumes. Terry Collins brought in a versatile and impressive set that really added a professional feel to the production. The most frustration part of the evening was the intermittence of the sound system. Technical issues with the microphones lost dialogue as characters entered and exited the stage.

From the opening notes of the live band, the audience understands “it’s magic time!”  Since childhood, one of the great excitements about main-stage productions at Thalian comes from the live music. Walking down the aisle to my seat, hearing the stray notes of the musicians warming up always sends cues that something special is coming. We are very lucky to have such a pool of talent in this town to make live music part of the theatre experience. In an age of digital music and remixes, to hear passionate musicians preforming favorite holiday songs from a bygone era is an audible treat.

Ultimately the production of “White Christmas” is exactly what community theatre should be: lots of kids and adults onstage, singing and dancing, children sitting on their parent’s laps in the audience, and the person next to you singing along with the music.

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