Friday, December 20, 2013
Theater review: Even a Grinch will love White Christmas at Music Hall
This high-caliber cast did the impossible … they made this Grinch’s heart melt!
DALLAS The Christmas season is upon us once again. Images of tinsel, ornaments, gingerbread men, mistletoe, evergreen wreaths, egg nog and Santa Claus are circling around our cranium. Oh, and some reindeer, one with either a really bad allergy issue or with a light bulb for a nose. Good cheer and good will to us all.
But then there’s the other side of this holiday. Overcrowded malls and stores with people clawing for that last must have, one-of-a-kind toy for some tot, even if it means spraying mace in people’s faces to snatch it up. Spoiled teens and college kids who want the latest iPad, iPod, Izod or whatever they are called now. Or a new cell phone with a zillion apps with bells and whistles galore. Like zombies, they barely look up from their texting to mumble what they want for Christmas this year. Traffic becomes bumper to bumper, like a snail heading to the guillotine. Finally, there is such a bloody battle to get the customer into the stores sooner than ever, that this year major chains and malls stayed opened on the night of Thanksgiving, while Walgreens all around the city had their Christmas stuff up the day after Halloween.
And then there are the Christmas shows. A Christmas Carol, Best Xmas Pageant Ever, Gifts of the Magi, Scrooge the Musical, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer and others that are resurrected, remounted, refurbished and planted back on stage for another annual run.
Yes, if this reads as though the long, furry-green fingers of the Grinch is typing this review, you would be correct. I am in the minority when it comes to this time of year. I’m just no longer a fan of the holiday for personal reasons. I spend the holiday numbing myself by seeing three or four films that have Oscar buzz back-to-back at the local AMC.
Besides the War Horse musical, the next tier of musical theater I just cannot stomach are the Christmas shows. As an actor, I have done several of the aforementioned titles above - torture, pure torture. I know families love these annual holiday treats, it’s part of their tradition. As a family they attend the annual Christmas show at their local theater.
My only purpose in reviewing the national tour of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas was because I’d never seen either the film or the Broadway version. So I grabbed my green “bah, humbug” coat and went to the Music Hall to check out this new holiday musical.
This stage version is based on the 1954 Paramount film that starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. After several tryouts, including San Francisco, it made its Broadway debut at the Marquis Theater in November 2008 where it had a limited engagement of 53 performances. It returned in 2010, racking up 51 performances and receiving two Tony Award nominations. Tuesday night, the first national tour of this musical pulled up its sled at the Music Hall for a limited run. So what did this Grinch think of it? Grab a cup of hot chocolate, sit by a warm, cozy fire and let’s see!
The book by David Ives and Paul Blake is a tad feeble and languorous. Some book scenes seem to be thrown in to stretch time for the crew to change sets behind the curtain. Some of the jokes creak. It is very paint by number. Even without seeing the film, you already can tell who falls for who by how predictable the book has set up the “conflict” for the characters to circle around and create a story. Plus, all the stock characters that were of the fashion in those past musicals are right there on stage. It is very family-friendly, that’s for sure, and does remind one of those old MGM musicals of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney putting on a show in a barn.
Thankfully, one can overlook the weakness of the book because of all those lush, grand songs composed by one of the best of the Great White Way, Berlin. The ballads are soft, romantic, plush songs that brush against your ears like a gentle feather. The up-tempo songs are robust with a hint of sizzling jazz-baby slickness.
Director Norb Joerder has worked overtime doing all he can to overcome and gloss over the creaky book and succeeds with stellar results. The pace is peppy, energetic and never wanes. Even with the opening night glitches that popped up, such as a painted backdrop that got stuck on the white satin curtain or the delay of one scene change that kept the audience in the dark, the crew and company kept chugging along with full gusto. The blocking and staging flowed with a nice sense of realism and purpose. There are no pockets of dead air anywhere in the show. Joerder makes sure to keep his train on “full speed ahead” with this show. There are some broad, vaudeville style characters in the show and Joerder perspicaciously knows how to place them front and center to give the book scenes a much needed bump of laughs and zest.
Randy Skinner’s choreography is full out razzle dazzle reminiscent of Busby Berkley, who was the king of choreography from the golden age of film musicals. When I first saw Skinner’s work in the magnificent revival of 42nd Street on Broadway in 2005, his choreography for that musical was breathtaking. For White Christmas, you can see his stamp and craft splattered all over those musical numbers. His creations of tap for such numbers as “Happy Holidays/Let Yourself Go,” “Blue Skies” and “I Love a Piano” are marvelous to observe. Especially “I Love a Piano,” this number, led by David Elder and Meredith Patterson, is like a great Busby Berkley MGM musical come to life on stage. The tapping is crisp, clean and gels within the orchestrations and percussion like a glove. It’s no wonder that Skinner received a Tony Award nomination for his choreography in White Christmas; it’s a well-deserved nod!
Kenneth Foy’s scenic design is a potpourri of set pieces, backdrops and fly-in specialty pieces that are finely detailed and beautifully crafted. Right when you take your seat, you are met with a proscenium trimmed with glittered snowflakes. The sets pieces are not only period in design but painted in soothing hues, such as the dressing rooms, the various night clubs (loved the massive chandelier for the Regency Room), the glittered iconic Ed Sullivan logo and so on. The Columbia Inn’s three big pieces are expertly built with depth and scope. The train set piece is very Art Deco, right down to the light sconces. Kudos must go to Art Johnson, assisted by Chris Kelly, for their amazing array of set props and set dressing for the show. Each set is covered with period bric-a-brac and furnishings. The backdrops are painted in realistic detail. You actually feel you’re out in the snow when the finale backdrop is revealed. My personal favorite backdrops are for “I Love a Piano.” Here, Foy has designed a massive floor to the fly rail, red backdrop that has this 3D array of white swirls covered in glitter, then a second red backdrop is revealed which a curving, cascading set of piano keys that are also covered in glitter.
The costume design by Carrie Robbins is pure opulence, with everything in period, right down to the shoes, gloves and hats. Her color palette is a dizzy array of eye-popping colors. For the number “Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go,” the men are dressed in bright pastels of apple green suits (even the shoes!) and the girls in yards of chiffon sprinkled with sequins and beading. For “I Love the Piano,” Robbins has its two leads sparkling in sequins (I plan on stealing the iridescent vest David Elder wore for that number!), while the rest ladies are dressed in slick satins and the men in crisp linens. The finale costumes pay sweet homage to the film’s costumes, right down to the billowing, red ball gowns Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen wore. Betty’s gown is a voluminous costume made of yards of red satin, trimmed in white fur. Judy’s gown has endless layers of tulle, while the top is plush red, encrusted with rhinestones.
Ken Billington’s lighting design is fantastic as he slathers the sets and cast with rich hues. When the musical numbers require energetic lighting, Billington answers back with bright colors. For romance, he bathes the sets in harmonious, soft lighting with the perfect color palette.
The biggest surprise for me was that the cast had several of Broadway’s brightest talents! For those of us who love the Great White Way and read up on everything about it, there are several well-known Broadway stars in the production.
But first, a standing ovation must go to the ensemble. Talk about triple threat talent! Each ensemble member dances up a storm and always in clean, peerless execution. Not a step out of place. Their tapping is so thrilling to observe, that several times during their big numbers the audience broke into loud applause midway through the number!
As singers they all possess vibrant, Broadway-belting voices. Their tight harmonies blend into sweet ear candy all evening long. They may not have many lines in the book scenes but that didn’t stop them from always being in the moment or giving the book scenes energy and pace. They are always in the moment right along with the principals, using natural facial expressions and never falling out of character.
This wonderful triple threat ensemble is comprised of Maddy Apple, Craig Blake, Allison Briner, Kaitlyn Davidson, Cody Davis, Kaitlyn Frank, Joe Grandy, Alexa Glover, Andrew Hodge, Bryan Thomas Hunt, Graham Keen, Megan Kelley, Trista Moldovan, Kristyn Pope, Katie Rooney, Natasha Scearse and Krista Severeid.
There are some within the ensemble that are stand outs thanks to some specialty numbers they are in. Cody Davis, Joe Grandy, Bryan Thomas Hunt are a trio of handsome, dancing Fred Astaires, donning tuxes as they dance in the Regency Room number “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me/ How Deep is the Ocean.”
Cliff Bemis, Corey Bretsch, Allison Briner, Cody Davis and Krista Severid deliver sparkling dancing execution as the quintet for the number “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” There are several performances that add solid laughs with spot on comedic timing, delivery, and pace. These include Kristyn Pope and Kaitlyn Davidson as Rita and Rhoda, two chorines who are Phil’s playthings. Both girls deliver hearty laughter each time they appear on stage.
Cliff Bemis steals the train car scene as Mr. Snoring man, but then later appears as Ezekiel Foster, the Columbia Inn handyman. The physical comedy he creates for this featured character results in loud guffaws from the audience.
Shannon Harrington is adorable as Susie … oops … sorry, I mean Susan … oh wait it’s Broadway Sue! You’ll get the joke when you see the show, which is why I make that reference. Harrington alternates the role with Grace Matwijec. She is a beautiful little girl with big, warm eyes. What impressed me most was how she was devoid of any of that horrible, child acting young actors are taught. She instead creates an honest, natural child. No cheesy, high-pitch kid voice or cutesy-pie antics. This tiny bundle of talent holds her own with the leads.
Tony Lawson as Ralph Sheldrake has the right attack as a soldier turned TV talent producer. But watch what he does at the top of the show with an array of props on the truck (topped with spot on facial expressions), he achieves solid laughs in that scene.
Finally, Joseph Costa is all gruff and business as General Henry Waverly. As the general who has gone from the battlefield to running and owning an Inn, Costa never once drops his stern, by-the-book soldier bravado. His final scene in Act Two when he speaks to the troops is very touching. I noticed in the row in front of me an elderly patron wipe her eyes.
For you Broadway addicts, the first major surprise was to see Ruth Williamson in the role of Martha Watson. I first saw her on Broadway in the historic 1995 revival of Guys and Dolls (starring Nathan Lane and Faith Prince) as General Cartwright. Then in 2000, in the mega hit Broadway revival of The Music Man (with Craig Bierko), she played Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. She stole every scene in that show. I would again have the great pleasure to see her in the 2004 Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles as Jacqueline. She is one of Broadway’s greatest treasures, in my book.
For White Christmas, she portrays Martha Watson, the concierge at the Columbia Inn. But at one time she was also a big Broadway star named Martha Megaphone Watson, and though she may have been in seven flops she was always a star. Williamson gives her characterization a great dose of sassy, no holds barred broad. Her characterization reminds you of Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter, those great dames who delivered wicked, wise comebacks, who held their own with the boys, and possessed comedic delivery that never missed. That is Williamson here. Her facial expressions are always hilarious. Even when she isn’t the focus of the scene, she is always in character. Her stage presence commands you to glance back at her to see what she is doing – and there she is - in full character mode, from the tilt of the head to the padding of her red hair like Mae West. Williamson has a show-stopping number with “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” She also has several other musical numbers that show off her full-bodied soprano voice and comedic finesse. In every Broadway show I’ve seen her in she steals the scene, and for White Christmas she again delivers what we expect from this powerful, talented actress – a scene-stealing performance that the audience adores.
James Clow is Bob Wallace and Trista Moldovan portrays Betty Haynes, the two romantic leads - well not at first. They are more like vinegar and water as their personalities just don’t click when they first meet. Both actors have divine chemistry that never dims and it is quite impressive to see how they let their romance slowly build. Instead of rushing for the sake of time and book, they approach it with a naturalistic flow which works so well within the musical. Both have their comedic moments throughout the musical but for the majority of the time they are the romantic duo of the night. And they do such a grand job playing two strong minded individuals who somehow fall in love.
Clow is a towering, dashing looking man who has a booming, hearty baritone voice that makes each of his solos glow with vocal shimmer. His ballads allow him to go from soft, quiet tones to belting notes when the song requires it. He also leads the company number “Blue Skies” with superior results.
Moldovan is a gorgeous girl with red-copper hair (although I think those are wigs). Her soprano voice is like a nightingale flying in the night. Ethereal, effortless, and floats across the stage to the audience on wings of exquisite singing. She has the best solo of the evening with the haunting ballad, “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.” She is costumed in a gorgeous, plush gown of black with satin green panels underneath and black beading stringed around it. Her hair is styled to perfection with a diamond hair adornment to complete the look. She looks like Rita Hayworth! Her voice gives the song a smoky, jazz-like soprano quality that fits within the music just like the long-sleeved satin gloves she wears for this number.
Clow and Moldovan have several outstanding duets sprinkled throughout the evening such as “Love and the Weather,” Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me/How Deep Is the Ocean.”
David Elder and Meredith Patterson are the younger leads and the other duo that fall in love. Elder is Phil Davis, Bob’s stage partner, fellow soldier and best friend. Patterson is Judy, who is Betty’s sister and stage partner.
Elder and Patterson are the comedic leads of the evening with some out-of-this-world dancing. Their chemistry is electrifying and just so much fun to watch. They play off each other like a well-oiled comedic duo with energy and pace that overflows into the parking lot. Their characters fall in love right off the bat, but once Phil’s roving eyes are caught red handed by Judy, it does not bode well for their blooming romance.
Their duets are glistening, glittery baubles of smashing dancing and immaculate vocals. Examples of these include “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” and “I Love a Piano.”
Patterson originated the role of Judy on Broadway so what a great treat to have her here in the national tour. This ravishing beauty has a set of gams that would make Betty Grable hang up her bathing suit! Patterson was in the original Broadway casts of The Green Bird and the 2001 revival of 42nd Street. She did take over the role of Peggy Sawyer later in the run, which means she co-starred with Mr. Elder (he originated the role of Billy Lawlor in the revival). So that explains why their chemistry is so in sync and perfect. For us die-hard Broadway folk, Patterson will look familiar as she was featured in the documentary Every Little Step. She delivers a first rate, crowd pleasing, splendiferous performance in White Christmas.
But the star of the entire production falls at the tap shoes worn by David Elder. Here is another Broadway star I have had the immense pleasure of enjoying in various musicals on the Great White Way. I have seen him in the 1995 Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees, and the original Broadway casts of both Beauty and the Beast and Titanic. But it was his performance as Billy Lawlor that really made him a star. He was sensational in that production, which earned him an Outer Critics nomination. I would once again get to enjoy watching his talents when he came through Dallas in the national tour of Damn Yankees starring Jerry Lewis. Elder portrayed Young Joe Hardy, and he not only held his own with the great Lewis, as Applegate, but stole several scenes from the comedic master!
Elder has leading man, handsome, boyish features that fit his characterization perfectly as a non-stop flirtatious ladies’ man. He is encased in a dynamic, hypnotic stage presence that I bet Sandra Bullock could see from space in Gravity! As an audience member your attention in a flash zeroes in on Elder and never wavers. His characterization of Phil Davis is simply resplendent. He does not try to copy or mimic the late Danny Kaye’s film rendition. Elder instead creates his own vision of Phil and succeeds with superlative results. His comedic timing, pace and delivery achieves some of the best, sidesplitting laughs of the entire evening. But to use his facial expressions as a “rims hot” to several of jokes is a master craftsman at his finest on stage. He also has wicked fun with the massive ostrich fan during the duet “Sisters.” This insanely talented performer also has a commanding and majestic tenor voice that crests effortlessly within those Berlin songs.
So few leading men today on Broadway can wear the medal of being a true triple threat – Elder can! I’ve mentioned his acting and singing talents, but then there’s that dancing. You can throw whatever style at him and he executes them with smashing success. Be it jazz, lyrical, ballroom, or tap; he can do it all! So few of today’s leading men can do that nowadays. Elder’s dancing technique and execution reminds you of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, with a good dose of Gower Champion, Bob Fosse and Tommy Tune thrown in for good measure! That’s how remarkable he is. If Broadway producers were smart, they would do a revival of My One and Only and cast Elder as Captain Billy Buck Chandler, the role created by Tommy Tune. If they did that, Elder would walk away with a Tony, I bet the bank on it! His tour-de-force, extraordinary, virtuoso performance in White Christmas displays why he is the star of the show.
Okay, so the show has a thick coating of sugary sweetness and a book that is somewhat sluggish. But what I so much enjoyed about this musical is that Christmas, and all that comes with it, is not the focal point of the show, playing much more in the background. Instead, the show focuses on comedy, romance and how we should all count our blessings.
White Christmas is packed with exceptional Broadway talent galore, from the leads to the ensemble. Add to that the stunning design elements and all that splendid dancing, singing and acting and you have an exquisite, distinguished, overall fun evening of musical theater.
So, if you want something fresh and new to see on stage than the usual holiday fare, Dallas Summer Musicals provides an extravagant package of rich delights with this national tour of White Christmas.
And yes, this high-caliber cast did the impossible … they made this Grinch’s heart melt!
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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