Stage Door Review 2022

White Christmas

Monday, December 19, 2022


music & lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by David Ives & Paul Blake, directed by Kate Hennig

Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

November 26-December 23, 2022

Phil: “The best things happen while you’re dancing”

I felt very lucky to have caught a performance of White Christmas in its final week at the Shaw Festival. It is one of the best productions of a musical the Shaw has staged since Floyd Collins in 2004. In 2015 Drayton Entertainment presented a White Christmas that I thought could not be bettered. But the Shaw has somehow surpassed that fine production with a deeper focus on the characters and even more imaginative choreography. The run virtually sold out as soon as the show opened, but if you have a chance this is the holiday musical to see this season.

For a refresher on the background and story, let me cite an updated version of my summary written in in 2015: “White Christmas is, of course, best known as a movie from 1954 starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. David Ives and Paul Blake adapted the movie for the stage in 2000. Though no one can replace the movie’s two leading men, the stage adaptation is in some ways more satisfying than the movie in that it omits the movie’s less savoury aspects, like the minstrel show sequence. It includes nearly all the songs in the movie, such all-time favourites as ‘Blue Skies’, ‘Sisters’, ‘Count Your Blessings’ and, of course, the title song. Plus the stage version adds in even more songs by Berlin from other sources such as ‘Happy Holiday’, ‘Let Yourself Go’, ‘I Love a Piano’, ‘Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun’ and ‘How Deep Is the Ocean’.

“Fans of the film need not worry because Ives and Blake’s new libretto follows the film quite closely. The main changes are that after Bob Wallace and Phil Davis make it big on Broadway, they appear on the Ed Sullivan Show and that General Waverly’s housekeeper is elevated to the role of concierge and the part boosted into a singing role.

“Otherwise, the plot is the same. We first meet the two male stars when they are putting on a Christmas show in Europe in 1944.  Bob Wallace (Jeff Irving) is a captain and Phil Davis (Kevin McLachlan) is a private while their much-respected superior is Major General Henry Waverly (David Alan Anderson). Waverly wonders in his Christmas Eve speech what the world will be like in ten years.

“We soon find out. Wallace and Davis have become a successful song-and-dance team and are looking for a sister act to be in their new show. At a nightclub they find just the thing with the Haynes Sisters, Betty (Alexis Gordon) and Judy (Mary Antonini). Phil and Judy immediately fall in love, while Bob and Betty can only snipe at each other. Since the sisters are booked to perform at the Columbia Inn in Vermont, Phil secretly switches his train ticket and Bob’s from Florida to Vermont. Upon arrival, Phil and Bob discover the inn is owned by now-retired General Waverly and run by his concierge Martha Watson (Jenni Burke), who has been trying to hide from him how deep in debt the inn has sunk.  The lack of snow for the holidays means the inn has no guests and paying the four entertainers will only put Waverly further into the red.

“To solve the problem, the four entertainers hit on that old standby of movie musicals – ‘Let’s put on a show!’ – and the plot runs its familiar course. Ives and Blake’s new book even includes the misheard gossip about Phil and Bob’s plans supposedly to take over the inn, an artificial fillip used to keep the story rolling for another half hour. No one will mind that artifice, however, since it leads to so many more great songs and dance numbers”.

For the Drayton production Michael Lichtefeld was both the director and the choreographer. For the Shaw these duties are split with Kate Hennig as the director and Allison Plamondon as the choreographer. This split seems to have had the benefit of improving both the acting and the dancing. There is no doubt that White Christmas is a formulaic musical. It is, after all, just a slight variation on Irving Berlin’s movie musical Holiday Inn (1942), with two guys, a singer and a dancer, who win two girls, a singer and a dancer, who combine forces and put on a show to save an inn in Vermont. White Christmas was written to cash in on the success of the most famous song of Holiday Inn, namely “White Christmas”.

Hennig, who directed Holiday Inn for the Shaw in 2019, has had the cast dig deep into their characters and to project them as real, complex people rather than caricatured entertainers. The result is that the action feels driven by the characters rather than by the plot. In this way the stage musical does not feel like an imitation of the movie musical or an imitation of Holiday Inn. We care about the characters in White Christmas as they are.

I have admired Lichtefeld’s choreography in his numerous credits at the Stratford Festival. White Christmas finds Anne Plamondon truly inspired and creating dances with a wider range of complexity than she has before. She does this both by presenting the dance sequences as explorations of characters and by finding ways to replicate and revivify the elegant style of the great dance sequences in movie musicals of the 1930s and ’40s. I have never been so impressed with the choreography of a musical at the Shaw as I was here.

A prime example is her treatment of the song “The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing”. Lichtefeld had a great idea when he had his Phil and Judy work their way through all the forms of ballroom dancing during the song. Plamondon goes back to the film and has the ballroom and its dancers disappear leaving Phil and Judy to cover the whole stage in a swirling foxtrot with lifts and poses, very much in the style of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Meanwhile, a quintet of singers makes its way from downstage right to upstage left in a vee formation intersecting the swirls traced by Phil and Judy. In Lichtefeld we’re delighted to identify all the different dance styles. In Plamondon, however, the dance, as in the film, serves as a metaphor for wooing so that Phil and Judy, who were attracted to each other when they started dancing, are fully in love by the end.

The Shaw Festival has managed to engage a marvellous cast. Jeff Irving, who happened to have played Bob for Drayton in 2015, lends Bob an even more serious personality than he did before. In the nightclub scene Bob is angry that Phil has tricked him into meeting a sister act after seeing their show, and he won’t speak to Betty when Phil and Judy are dancing. Yet Irving makes it seem that more is on Bob’s mind, such as memories of the war or worries of being left alone, than Phil’s trick.

Irving’s singing voice is even richer than it was before and effortlessly holds high notes. He sings “Count Your Blessings” to the child, Susan, and “How Deep Is the Ocean” with great passion to Betty. He even gives “Blue Skies” a melancholy tinge which perfectly suits the fantastic jazz ballet that Plamondon has created for it.

As Phil, Kevin McLachlan is in his fourth season at the Shaw but this is his first leading role. He may not have as mellow a voice as Irving, but he is still a fine singer. His forte, though, is dancing and as a dancer he’s a knockout. He displays his sense of grace and elegance in “The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing” and shows that he’s a super-fast tapper in “I Love a Piano” that opens the second act. Judith Bowden has designed a set with a large board of (non-movable) piano keys leading to a short set of stairs. Plamondon has McLachlan and Antonini tap not only up and down the treads of the stairs but also tap the risers. In a magical moment the orchestra stops and we hear only the tapping and note the dancers’ amazing precision. At the end Antoni and the chorus perform complex tap steps while McLachlan performs even more complex steps including nerve taps as accompanying variations.

McLachlan has Phil project a generally mischievous personality which helps explain why General Waverley and Bob don’t always trust him. Yet this mischief-making is part of his live-for-the-moment attitude that contrast with Bob’s more inward, contemplative outlook.

The Haynes Sisters reflect the same difference between showbiz partners. Betty is as meditative as Bob and tends to worry while Judy is blithe and carefree. Alexis Gordon is excellent as Betty and in the same nightclub scene where Bob ignores her, Gordon makes Betty look preoccupied with more than Bob’s rudeness. Being alone could make her think of what she had said to Judy earlier about the possibility of their act splitting up. Gordon is in fine voice and like Irving’s Bob tends to give a melancholy tone to her songs. This make her big solo number, the torch song “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” resonate with Betty’s painful personal emotions.

Mary Antonini is a great find as Judy. Her bright, clear voice, quick moves and bouncy personality strike a strong contrast with Gordon’s lower, hazy voice, care-filled attitude and thoughtful personality. Keven McLachlan may be a super tap-dancer but Antonini can match him step for step. And in Judy and Phil’s big dance number at the nightclub, Antonini shows she is every bit as graceful as he is. Gordon and Antonini’s voices blend perfectly and their cute nightclub number “Sisters” is one of the highlights of the show.

David Alan Anderson is a fine imposing General Waverly while Jenni Burke as the concierge Martha Watson at his inn is wonderful as his comic counterpart. Ives and Blake have enlarged the role of Martha Watson (called Emma Allen in the film) by making her a former Broadway singer who longs to be in the show.  This adds comedy, at which Burke excels, and gives her the chance gleefully to belt out “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” despite her rocky voice.

Among the rest of the cast Catherine Dubois (who alternates with Payton Mills) is delightful as Susan. It is a pleasure to watch Dubois chart Susan’s change in interest from history to showbiz and her song “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” that connects her to Martha is both well done and touching.

Kyle Golemba reprises his comic role as the nervous stage manager Mike from Drayton and distinguishes him well from the sleazy announcer at the nightclub where the Haynes Sisters appear. As Phil and Bob’s manager Ralph Sheldrake, Kelly Wong is a lively, positive presence and his admiration of the two men and the General, with whom he served in the army, shines through. Drew Plummer is amusing as a typically laconic New England farmer.

The Shaw’s production does just what the best holiday musicals should do. It leaves you smiling, uplifted and humming some of the best songs by one of America’s greatest songwriters. No tickets may be left for White Christmas this year, but the Shaw Festival would be foolish not to remount what has been one of their greatest musical successes. Let me advise you that the next time you see White Christmas on the Shaw Festival’s paybill, rush to buy tickets because it is sure to sell out again.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Jeff Irving as Bob, Alexis Gordon as Betty, Mary Antonini as Judy as Kevin McLachlan as Phil; Mary Antonini as Judy and Alexis Gordon as Betty in “Sisters"; members of the ensemble in “Blue Skies”; Kevin McLachlan as Phil and Mary Antonini as Judy in “I Love a Piano”; Kevin McLachlan as Phil and Jeff Irving as Bob in “Happy Holiday”. © 2022 David Cooper.

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