Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2007
Being my curmudgeonly self, I was less than thrilled with the announcement that the Mac-Haydn would bring me “Christmas in July” with a production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. It is my opinion that we get way too much Chistmas when it IS Christmas, and the idea of an additional onslaught of tinsel and holly and forced good cheer brought out the Scrooge in me.
But the Mac-Haydn accomplished the impossible. No, they didn’t get me in the Christmas spirit, although every inch of the theatre and every Mac-Haydn employee is festively bedecked, but they did render me absolutely speechless. By the final tableaux I realized that there was really nothing that I could say that would adequately convey the magic of that moment. It was the complete embodiment of the miracle that is the theatre, and there was nothing on that tiny stage but talent and hard work.
The show itself is a big silliness, just like the 1954 movie of the same name on which it is based. Boys meet sisters, boys fall for sisters (and vice versa), boys and sisters have falling outs, boys and sisters get back together, it snows. In the background is the sentimental and patriotic story of General Waverly and his soldiers’ undying loyalty to him. I have to admit that the song that got me tearing up was not the title tune but We’ll Follow the Old Man and the one thing the Mac-Haydn was unable to provide was the image of hundreds of soldiers marching in to salute their General again ten years after the war has ended.
But people love that movie, and this show is does an excellent job of bringing it to life on the stage. There are a LOT of scenes set in locales as diverse as the western front during World War II, the Ed Sullivan Show, on a train, in the Regency Room in New York City, and inside and outside the Columbia Inn and its barn in Pine Tree, Vermont, just to name a few. For once the fact that you cannot build a realistic set on the Mac-Haydn stage came in remarkably handy. Locale was established by set designer Bud Clark with a few props and set pieces, but mostly with costumes, lights, and a few cheerful lines informing us where we were now. The effect was almost cinematic, largely thanks to Doug Hodge’s clear-headed direction, Andrew Gmoser’s masterful lighting and Jimm Halliday’s incredible costumes. The scene where Bob Wallace sings Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep to little Susie made me feel that I was right there on the porch of the Inn on a warm December evening (yes, we do have them here in New England). And yet there was nothing on the stage but a couple of chairs and a lamppost.
The trickiest thing about White Christmas is the lack of actual big stars to play the male leads. When Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye played Bob Wallace and Phil Davis you accepted them as big stars because they WERE big stars. Even though Wallace and Davis are fictional, Crosby and Kaye were very real. In the stage version you are pretty much guaranteed two young unknowns in the roles, and no matter how talented they are, they come off as phonies pretending to be the “great” Wallace and Davis.
At the Mac-Haydn you have the added distraction that the Shook sisters* actually ARE big stars in our local firmament. They are the ones area audiences are buying tickets to see. For a while I pondered whether the genders could have been reversed and Karla and Kelly could have played the successful song-and-dance team while Austin Riley Green and Jamison Foreman played an up-and-coming brother act.
In my review of Karla and Kelly Shook’s performances as Sarah Brown and Miss Adelaide in last season’s Guys and Dolls I said that they were in their respective primes. While they were wonderful then, they are absolutely luminous here. Neither of them has ever looked or sounded better. I speak of them collectively, but of course that is not fair. Karla and Kelly are completely different performers. In fact, if you did not know they were sisters you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell, but it is fun to have them playing sisters Betty and Judy Haynes here. I would have driven the hour down to the Mac-Haydn just to hear them sing Sisters (did you know that Rosemary Clooney actually sang both parts on that song in the film? No wonder she sounded so much like herself!)
Karla is cast as Betty, the sensible sister, while Kelly plays the irascible Judy. Earlier in the season I complained about Karla’s platinum blonde look, but here she is just breathtaking in a platinum wig a la Marilyn Monroe, whose womanly curves she also possesses. Kelly is wigged out as a gorgeous redhead, which suits her too. Words cannot describe the hundreds of spectacular costumes Halliday has created for this show, but the most beautiful of all is Karla’s grey lace gown for Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me. If I were Karla I would have a formal portrait taken in that gown ASAP! That gown and Gmoser’s dramatic lighting coupled with Karla’s powerful and poignant vocals made for stage magic. A talented young woman at her most beautiful singing with remarkable power and range about love gone wrong...I was very cross at the audience I attended with for the tepid bit of applause they gave that number.
The weakest link in this cast is Foreman, who is way too young and vocally too much of a light-weight to play Phil Davis, but he is charming and couples nicely with Kelly on their big dance numbers, so I won’t complain too much. Green fares much better, even though he is saddled with the basically impossible task of playing Big Crosby. He turns in a focused performance and while he doesn’t sound like Crosby (who once said he thought his voice sounded like he was perpetually singing in the bathtub) he sounds very good indeed.
One character who has been changed significantly from the film version is General Waverly’s housekeeper, who is called Martha Watson here and is a retired stage star. The great Mary Wickes, who played the housekeeper role (Emma Allen) in the film was not a song-and-dance gal, but here everyone needs to belt out a tune or two and tap out Christine Negherbon’s fabulous choreography, so we have Mac-Haydn newcomer Rachel Black in the role. What a find! This chick is funny and sassy and attractive and talented. More! More!
Shawn Morgan was genuinely moving as General Waverly. And Thom Caska offered up another fine character turn as Ralph Sheldrake – he of the million dollar proposition. The more I see of Caska the more impressed I am. Jeffrey Funaro as the laconic Ezekiel Foster and Whitney Lee as the frenetic stage manager Mike are both hilarious, and their “Vermont marriage” at the end was a fun touch. I saw Robin Spateholts as the General’s granddaughter Susie, a role she shares with Kelly Swint, and she was delightful.
We get to see a lot of the chorus in this show, clothed in dozens of Halliday’s great costumes. As always, the Mac-Haydn has assembled a very talented and appealing crew of young performers, who grow on you steadily over the course of the season. Here they are at their singing (in Snow) and dancing (in Blue Skies, I Love A Piano, and the grand finale) best, making everything seem fun and easy on that tiny stage when you know that what they do is darned difficult and tiring.
The overall effect of all these talented and attractive performers in glorious costumes singing Irving Berlin’s wonderful music is magical. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts and the show just soars. Looking at that gorgeous finale (you can see it on the Web site) I was just blown away. All this for a top ticket price $25.50 in that funky little theatre in Chatham, New York, with the trains rumbling by. You couldn’t get better in New York City or Las Vegas, and you certainly wouldn’t be able to sit as close to the action. And yes, you do get to sing along with the title song. It wouldn’t be Christmas without it!
Irving Berlin's White Christmas runs through August 5 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
* While it is journalistic etiquette to refer to performers by their last names once they have been identified, not only do Karla and Kelly Shook share the same last name, they share the same first initial. Under these circumstances it would be proper to use both their names every time I speak of them, but frankly that is unwieldy and sounds very stilted. I therefore choose to refer to them by their first names only. copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007