The stage musical Irving Berlin’s White Christmas has quite the pedigree. The song White Christmas was first publicly performed by legendary crooner Bing Crosby on a live radio show in 1941. Crosby subsequently recorded the song to be featured in the film Holiday Inn.
After winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song for Holiday Inn, music executives knew they had a surefire moneymaker on their hands. Bing Crosby’s single of the song has sold over 50 million copies, making it the best-selling single of all time.
Continuing to capitalize on the song’s popularity, Paramount Pictures had Crosby rerecord the song and featured it as the centerpiece to the 1954 film White Christmas. The film was the highest-grossing film of the year and starred Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen.
The film was actually commissioned at the suggestion of composer Irving Berlin. Knowing their involvement would be key to the success of the film, Paramount Pictures promised 50% of the profits to Crosby and Berlin to split in order to bring them both on board.
HOW THE STORY GOES
The story follows two GIs, former Broadway star Captain Bob Wallace and Private Phil Davis, as they embark on a post-war career as a song and dance duo. The two hit it big and soon have the power to produce their own shows. This leads them to scout Betty and Judy Haynes, the singing and dancing sisters of one of the men from their Army days.
The four of them end of up in Vermont, where they happen upon Bob and Phil’s former commanding officer Major General Thomas Waverly. Waverly owns an inn that is struggling financially, so Bob and Phil and the girls decide to put on a show to raise money to save their old C.O. Along the way, romance sparks between Bob and Betty, and between Phil and Judy.
In 2000, The Muny, a theater in St. Louis, Missouri, premiered a stage adaptation of the musical. It features a book by David Ives and Paul Blake. The musical had a very brief Broadway run in 2008 and another limited run in 2009. It has been a theatrical holiday staple ever since.
Under the skillful direction of Sasha Gerritson, Music Theater Works brings its bright and colorful production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, IL through January 1, 2023.
SCREEN TO STAGE
The stage production is a bit different than the film, which is to be expected. Films adapted into stage vehicles rarely translate verbatim. Liberties have to be taken by those doing the adaptation, it’s just a question of how well they do it.
One of the big requirements for delighting theater audiences with White Christmas is to emulate the likability that Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye brought to the roles of Bob and Phil. There has to be a reason you root for the heroes. And, of course, they should be great song and dance men.
This production features Tommy Thurston in the role of Bob Wallace and Jimmy Hogan in the role of Phil Davis. Thurston plays Bob as an abrasive, dour man who then softens and opens his heart at the end of the show. Hogan embraces the Casanova element of his character.
Thurston and Hogan are both excellent singers. With body mics being so commonplace in theater today, projecting has become a lost art for some. Thurston, Hogan, and the entire cast of White Christmas prove they can deliver their songs to the back of the auditorium in dramatic fashion.
Indeed, the music for White Christmas is the calling card for this holiday treat. Under the guidance of music director Roger Bingaman, the orchestra sounds robust and bright, and the onstage singers all have soaring and expressive voices. The harmonies are simply heavenly.
Kelly Britt and Anna Marie Abbate are well cast as Betty and Judy Haynes – the sister act that nabs Bob and Phil’s hearts. They are both striking beauties, fine dancers, and fabulous singers. Both Britt and Abbate capture their characters well: Betty as a bit of a mother hen with Judy being a bit more impetuous. Their performances should be cherished.
In the supporting cast, Brian Rooney is a gruff, military minded General Waverly and Alicia Berneche is his right-hand gal Martha Watson. Audiences will enjoy them both.
The hidden diamond in this production is high school freshman Lea Biwer as General Waverly’s granddaughter Susan. Biwer is a pint-sized dynamo who can sing, dance, and act like nobody’s business. She steals every scene she’s in and brings down the house with her rendition of Let Me Sing and I’m Happy in Act II.
Choreographer Clayton Cross has taken a series of simple routines and drilled them to uniform execution by the ensemble. Cross fills the stage and keeps the dancers moving and active throughout the show.
FESTIVE TIME OF YEAR
Scenic design by Shane Cinal is simple but effective. Costume designer Elizabeth Monti does a nice job, including the prerequisite red velvet and marabou dresses for the production’s finale. Wigs, hair, and makeup are by Alice Salazar. Lighting design is by Andrew Meyers, with sound design by Eric Backus.
The holidays are a great time to enjoy song and dance extravaganzas. White Christmas has for decades been a favorite festive movie, and now it can be enjoyed live and in person with Music Theater Works, performing at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts (9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie, IL).
The Christmas musical plays select Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through January 1st. For tickets contact the box office at (847) 673-6300 or visit www.MusicTheaterWorks.com. There is ample, covered free parking. The theater is easily accessible from the city and suburbs.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
This year, I had the great pleasure of appearing in the hilarious Paul Rudnick comedy I Hate Hamlet for Elgin Theatre Company in the greater Chicago area. To our great honor, I Hate Hamlet has been nominated for seven prizes in the 2022 Broadway World Chicago Theatre Awards:
- Best Direction of a Play – Regina Belt-Daniels
- Best Ensemble Performance
- Best Play
- Best Performer in a Play – Rikki Lee Travolta
- Best Supporting Performer in a Play – Trace Gamache
- Best Supporting Performer in a Play – Travis Greuel
- Best Supporting Performer in a Play – David Gasior
If you want to voice your support for the Elgin Theatre Company production of I Hate Hamlet, you can cast your vote at: https://www.broadwayworld.com/chicago/voteregion.cfm