Musical adaptation unites artistry and nostalgia
by Josh Bootsma
MUNSTER, Ind. (December 1, 2019) – The theatre swells as Bob Wallace invites the audience to join him and the rest of his troupe in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” the timeless refrain of heart-warming, snowy nostalgia. So ends White Christmas, Theatre at the Center’s delightful holiday offering running through December 22.
Charming story, tweaked for the stage
An adaptation of the beloved 1954 film of the same name, White Christmas takes the charm of the original, adds a few songs and tweaks a few characters, and brings it to the stage, where it feels just as natural as the version you watched on your VHS decades ago.
The musical opens during World War II where we meet Bob Wallace (Matt Edmonds) and Phil Davis (Justin Brill), who are busy entertaining their GI colleagues. Fast forward ten years and the pair is performing on the Ed Sullivan Show, soon after which they meet the singing sisters Betty and Judy Haynes (Erica Stephan and Casiena Raether). Phil and Judy hit it off, and Phil tricks Bob into going to Vermont with the sisters. The foursome arrives to discover (1) there’s no snow, (2) Phil and Bob’s old Army general, Henry Waverly (Neil Friedman) is the owner of the inn where they’re staying, and (3) he is struggling to make ends meet. Bob and Phil spend the rest of the musical preparing a special Christmas performance for the General, inviting all of their old army pals to support him.
As in the original film, White Christmas lives or dies at the hands of its four leading actors, a hurdle that the Theatre at the Center’s foursome vaults handily. Matt Edmonds has big shoes to fill in those of Bing Crosby, who played Bob Wallace in the original film, and Edmonds fills them in a very Crosby-esque style while adding a dash of his own youthful energy. His strong vocal performance, and those of the rest of the ensemble, have a 1950s warm holiday timbre to them, making them easy and enjoyable to listen to.
Erica Stephan offers a compelling and beautiful Betty, whose sometimes-flirtatious-sometimes-inimical relationship with Bob both delights and frustrates the audience the way it’s intended to. Justin Brill as Phil Davis and Casiena Raether as Judy Haynes provide a fun-loving foil to Bob and Betty, and are equally talented vocally.
Characters and choreography
Using the entire thrust and proscenium of the stage, White Christmas fills the large area well with its group dance numbers, though some of the more intimate moments of the musical seem detached from the audience as they play out in the cavernous space. The group numbers, many of which include tap dancing, are excellently choreographed by the director of the show, Linda Fortunato. Of particular delight is a scene on the train to Vermont where, in a mimed train car, the cheery ensemble sings “Snow” and creates beautiful levels and movement that frame Bob and Betty’s awkward and reticent moods, eventually getting them to join in the snowy anticipation.
Though the escapading troupe is disappointed to arrive in a Vermont that promises more green than white on Christmas, the audience is thrilled to meet the most enjoyable departure from the original film: Martha “The Megaphone” Watson (Glory Kissel). The former professional singer known for her ostentatious verve in both life and song is now the nosy housekeeper of the Columbia Inn, owned by General Waverly. Kissel’s pulsating energy draws the audience’s attention almost magnetically and her wailing “Let me Sing and I’m Happy” drew a rollicking round of applause.
On the other end of the spectrum is Edmonds’ intimate and sweet performance of “Count Your Blessings,” which Bob Wallace sings to General Waverly’s young granddaughter Susan (Raegan Smedley), who is having trouble sleeping. Sung in the original film by Bob to Betty, “Count Your Blessings” is given a new charm as Bob sings it to Susan while Betty and the General look on.
Regular Theatre at the Center patrons will recognize the ease with which Neil Friedman’s General Waverly interacts with Smedley’s Susan, as he starred in last year’s Miracle on 34th Street as Santa Claus. Though presented with a more military-oriented character in this year’s holiday musical, the same winsome warmth shines through.
Just as impressive as the performances are the vibrant costumes that adorn the actors throughout the show. From army overcoats to swanky gowns to stark red Christmas suits, costume designer Brenda Winstead has designed a festive array of beautiful costumes that contribute to the festive 1950s aura of the musical and help bring out the life in its characters.
Nostalgia and artistry
Theatre at the Center’s White Christmas is a fabulous way to enjoy the holidays this year. Although fans of the original film might point out some minor plot differences, the kind-hearted spirit of White Christmas remains the same, and is perhaps better suited for the stage as a result of the character and song additions. As the snow slowly descends and the audience joins the scintillating red and white-clad characters in their song of glistening tree tops and snowy sleigh bells, the full nostalgic power of Christmas joins with the artistic power of the theatre—leaving eyes moistened and hearts enlivened.
“Remember when you told me to have fun?” Bob asks Phil mid-way through the show.
“Yeah,” Phil replies.
“Well I’m having it,” says Bob, with a smile.
We are too, Bob. We are too.
Performance times and rates
The show runs through December 22 during the dates and times listed below:
- Wednesdays and Thursdays: 2:00pm
- Fridays: 7:30pm
- Saturdays: 3:00pm and 7:30pm
- Sundays: 2:30pm
Individual ticket prices range from $42–$46. To purchase individual tickets, call the Box Office at 219-836-3255.
The Lansing Journal has three remaining pairs of complimentary tickets that are valid for any show on December 18, 19, or 20. We will give these to the first three supporters who make a gift online:
Theatre at the Center is located at 1040 Ridge Road in Munster, Indiana. For more information, visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com.