November 23 to December 16, 2012
Listen to my review on CBC Eyeopener at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/2012/12/06/jessica-goldman-reviews-white-christmas/
If I was going to be really snarky, I’d start this review by saying it would have to be a Christmas miracle for me to actually like this show. Not because Storybook’s productions are generally lacking or because I had previously disliked the efforts of anyone involved with the show. But because as a general rule, not only do I rarely find great affection for musicals, but add the fact that White Christmas is most definitely a holiday musical, and you have a caldron brew of ick for me. However, I am happy to say that my petulance is easily left at the door due to this wonderfully fun, slick and at times excitingly well performed production. The only miracles performed here are by the hard-working and for the most part extremely talented cast and crew.
For those of you who haven’t seen the famous film this play is adapted from or possibly just need reminding of the story, White Christmas is often described as a 4M narrative meaning – merriment, mischief and mistaken motives. Bob and Phil are army buddies from WW2 who have gone on to become a very successful song and dance team. To fill out their production, they feel they need a sister act, so they go see the Haynes sisters, Betty and Judy, perform at a nightclub. Bob immediately falls for Betty and Phil likewise falls for Judy. Phil and Judy hit it off, but Bob and Betty not so much. So Phil and Judy hatch a plan for the guys to follow the girls to their next show at an Inn Vermont in the hopes that Betty and Bob get a second chance at getting to know each other. However when they get to the Inn, there’s no snow as Vermont is experiencing a freak heat wave in December. Much to the dismay of the Inn manager Martha, all the guests who came to ski and enjoy the cold weather decide to leave meaning there is no audience for the girl’s show. But just as Bob and Phil are getting set to leave they learn that the owner of the Inn is their old commanding officer from the War who they were very fond of. The boys decide to stay and drum up business for the general by bringing their whole production team to the Inn for a big Christmas show. That’s when all the trouble starts. Betty thinks that Bob is taking advantage of the situation for his own publicity. Judy thinks Betty is upset because she’s afraid to fall in love with Bob. And Phil can’t stop flirting with the showgirls and might ruin his relationship with Judy. So there are fights and misunderstandings and the show might not go on and just when it looks like the whole thing is going to fall apart… well … it’s a holiday musical, so we all know there’s going to be a happy ending eventually.
No doubt it was a bit daunting for the actors to take on such iconic roles made famous by the likes of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen in the main roles, but for the most part I thought this cast did very well. Or to be specific, they did very well in the singing department. This was a whole show full of sure and strong voices. All the music in the show is written by Irving Berlin, so there is no shortage of great songs to sing and I couldn’t find fault with any of the musical numbers as they played out with one great voice after another. In particular, Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go by Bob (smooth voiced Russell Moore) and Phil (magnetically entertaining and pitch perfect Brent Middleton), Sisters performed by Betty (the clear voiced Heather Spearman) and Judy (fantastically expressive Madeleine Suddaby), Snow (performed by the full company), Let Me Sing and I’m Happy by Martha (the irrepressibly energetic voiced Jacqueline Strilchuk) were all show stoppers in their own rights. Frankly, looking through the list of musical numbers, the only one that wasn’t incredibly strong was the titular White Christmas which seemed to sag under Moore’s somewhat soulless, matter of fact delivery of the famous song.
In fact, Moore’s the acting side of the equation was also lacking in places. More often than not he delivered his lines to the audience instead of to the characters he was actually talking to with which resulted in much of his dialogue seeming read as opposed to acted and certainly not fully internalized. Also on a casting note, Moore was far too old to be playing this role. Bob is supposed to be a contemporary of Phil’s but the age difference between the two actors make it look like a father and son kind of thing that started off distracting and never lessened for me during the show. Also lacking strong acting acumen was the beautiful-voiced Heather Spearman whose Betty was just too stiff to ever really connect with.
But just like the last time I went to see a Storybook Theater production where I was totally wowed by two performers I had never seen before, the same thing happened for me during this show. Brent Middleton as Phil and Jacqueline Strilchuk as Martha held my rapt attention every time they took the stage. Both actors took their fairly two-dimensional roles and made them funny and human and likeable and utterly charismatic. Whether they were singing and dancing or acting or even just taking a back seat to the main action, they stole their scenes and delivered some of the best moments in the show.
However the real star of this production of White Christmas was the dancing. There were a number of fairly ambitious large dance numbers in this production and they looked fantastic. Credit must be paid to Director JP Thibodeau and Choreographer Laura Solilo for what they accomplished with these scenes. The dancers were excellent, the production of the numbers looked sharp and it gave a whole show a professional gravitas that it was impossible not to be impressed with. Especially when you consider that Storybook is a community theatre company, meaning that everyone in the production, actors included, are volunteers with only a limited amount of rehearsal time. But there is no doubt that when considering the singing and the dancing and the amazingly rich sound mix in this production that White Christmas is just as good as many of the professional shows I’ve seen lately.
Is it safe holiday theater that pushes no new boundaries and takes no real risks? Sure it is. And yes, there were some weaker moments with the acting. But this production of White Christmas is all about the singing and dancing and with that in mind; the show was a huge success. Miracle accomplished
For the guys – This is a fun holiday show with no tear jerker moments or heavy heart-string pulls. Just good singing and dancing in a well-polished production. SEE IT
For the girls – The lack of chemistry between Bob and Betty will disappoint you, but Phil and Judy more than make up for it with great performances by both actors. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Perfect holiday musical to take your whole family to. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – Nothing new or terribly exciting here. But the singing and dancing are great and there are some fantastic performances to latch onto. MAYBE SEE IT