Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Theater review: White Christmas by Plaza Theatre will make families smile
The only real issue with Plaza’s production of White Christmas is that the stage is often too crowded with people.
CLEBURNE Looking back on my childhood, memories of the holiday season are intertwined with the flickering images of classic Christmas movies: Kris Kringle speaking Dutch to a little girl in Macy’s department store, sewing the first seeds of belief in little Susan Walker; Jimmy Stewart’s distinctive voice promising Mary the moon; Judy Garland’s rich alto ringing out over the snow-covered houses and yards of St. Louis. And, of course, there are the hijinks, songs and dances of White Christmas.
Years later, a friend of mine made her way to Broadway via the annual White Christmas tour, of which I’ve seen two performances. The paper-thin plot serves as a vehicle for a whole lot of singing and dancing, which of course was always stellar in the official tour. It’s a show meant to dazzle in the spirit of the big American musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, full of big tap routines, a bounty of physical comedy, and tunes that exemplify the nostalgic, sentimental style of Irving Berlin.
Let’s just say that my holiday season never seems quite real without viewing some form of this show, and I was thrilled to be able to review Plaza Theatre Company’s production. Making the drive to Cleburne for this company has always paid off with a night of excellent community theatre, and White Christmas was no exception.
I have to take a moment to give the biggest kudos of the night to Tina Barrus, whose costumes once again were an absolute delight. From the uniforms of World War II soldiers to the red and white sequins, velvet and furs of the closing number, Barrus churned out dozens of period-perfect, exquisitely designed, and well-made costumes. The iconic feather fans and matching dance outfits worn by Judy and Betty during their performance of “Sisters” were so much fun I clapped in delight. From “Blue Skies” to “White Christmas,” the performance costumes complemented the musical numbers perfectly. Even the street clothes worn by both the featured and supporting cast were worthy of special note. In a tiny space like Plaza’s, sets and props necessarily have to be scaled back. The only technical element that can really get the full treatment is the costumes, and Barrus never once underdelivered. This may be a little community theatre in a little Texas town, but Barrus designs and produces costumes fit for Broadway.
The light design by Cameron Barrus also had some neat tricks, especially the great rendition of the Ed Sullivan Show’s logo projected whenever any of the performers appear there. Though a little too dim to really be classified as remarkable, the blue wash and light reflections during “Blue Skies” was creative and effective, giving the impression of sequins glittering in a spotlight all over the stage.
For the most part, G. Aaron Siler’s sound design was solid. He seems to have found exactly the right mix between the principals, chorus and accompaniment so that each element can be heard without overwhelming any other. There were some glitches on Saturday during the big group number “Snow,” but overall, Siler managed the challenge of producing a big show in a little space quite nicely.
The sets by JaceSon P. Barrus were necessarily minimal but highly effective. The large ensemble acted as the stage crew, bringing set pieces on and offstage, leading to a few clumsy transitions but they were easily forgiven. A few cabaret tables created the Regency Room nightclub, red doors and wooden barrels made up the Barn Theatre, and wooden benches were used to depict an Army camp. Barrus displayed his intimate knowledge of the space with special touches like an actual porch swing during the classic “Count Your Blessings” on the front porch of the inn and dual dressing rooms for the guys and gals during “Love and the Weather.” Most impressive was the Front Desk at the Columbia Inn which Martha Watson (Judy Keller) used as her headquarters to manage General Waverly (Doug Henry) and meddle in the affairs of the guests.
Keller gave a stand-out performance as the formidable Martha. Her strong, brash mannerisms transitioned perfectly into her solo number “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” which had the audience cheering. Equally protective and nosy, Martha is the true boss of the Columbia Inn, despite General Waverly’s name on the deed. Keller brought tremendous energy to the role but also showed a seasoned knowledge of when to scale back so as not to detract from the main action. She stole the show in the moments she was supposed to, supplemented the other cast members to keep the pacing brisk when needed, and faded into the background when appropriate.
Martha’s repartee with the General is typically a source of chuckles in White Christmas as they argue back and forth like an old married couple. Doug Henry as General Waverly was a little too soft-spoken to convince me that he was an equal match for Martha. Likewise, it was difficult to imagine him leading men into battle or commanding the sort of respect that would make two former members of his company still snap to attention 10 years after the war ended. His moments with his granddaughter, Susan (Eden Barrus), were the most effective.
Eden Barrus was adorable as studious little Susie — make that Susan — who gets bitten by the theatre bug that infects most of the rest of the cast. Though still very young, Barrus has the makings of a true triple-threat. She was believable as a granddaughter who was sincerely worried about her grandfather, her singing voice was clear and strong, and she showed her dancing chops during her reprise of Martha’s “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”
Rounding out the motley crew at the Columbia Inn is Ezekiel Foster, hilariously played by Jay A. Cornils. Though Zeke is a man of few words, Cornils delivered them with comedic timing that never failed to get a laugh.
The supporting members from the show-biz side of the cast also had some good performances, though none to match Cornils and Eden Barrus. Monica and Stefanie Glenn, the real-life sisters who portrayed Rhoda and Rita, were appropriately irritating with their giggling and flirting, and their shrill speaking voices carried over well in their brief duets. Joshua Rendon as Ralph Sheldrake channeled the bravado of a successful Broadway producer, his big frame and bigger stage presence conveying the attitude of self-importance necessary for the role.
This brings us to our four leads. Jonathan Metting and Jill Nicolas were precious as Phil Davis and Judy Haynes. Both players moved with that particular kind of sassy style that is so characteristic of musicals of this era. The dance numbers between the two, especially “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” in Act I, were truly impressive. They each got to show a range of dance styles, though the show by design is tap-heavy. They definitely showed more chemistry in their dancing than in their spoken scenes but each had fabulous spunk that made up for any lack of sizzle and carried over into their individual roles.
Metting gave the impression that he could have played this role in his sleep; he made every song and dance move seem wonderfully natural and easy. He played the perfect sidekick, and his performance during his duets with Barrus channeled just enough of Danny Kaye (who played the role in the film) to draw a definitive parallel, but he still managed to make the role his own.
Judy Haynes, as played by Nicolas, likewise was a great foil to older sister Betty (Daron Cockerell). Lively, impulsive and fun-loving, Judy’s flirtatious sass was a nice contrast to Betty’s romantic angst. Nicolas and Cockerell as Judy and Betty Haynes didn’t have quite the same chemistry as Metting and JaceSon P. Barrus as Phil Davis and Bob Wallace, but this perhaps is due to the fact that the role of Judy was double cast. Where Barrus had only to connect with Metting, Cockerell had to form a connection with two Judys. Despite this, the Haynes Sisters were charming whenever they performed and Nicolas more than carried her weight.
What Daron Cockerell may or may not lack in dance skills (the role doesn’t provide much room for her to show them off), she makes up for in spades with a silky, rich singing voice that was equally successful in playful numbers such as “Sisters” or “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” as it was during her signature soulful ballad “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.” Especially after the key change halfway through, Cockerell’s voice soared through the space, leaving goosebumps in its wake.
Her voice didn’t fail her in her duets with Barrus either. The two blended well together vocally — their rendition of “Count Your Blessings” was soft and touching. Regretfully, they failed to achieve the chemistry that Bob and Betty should have. Their most successful moments came in the beginning of the show when they verbally jab each other in a back-and-forth repartee that was nicely paced and lively. All of that life, however, seemed to go out of the duo once the truce was called and they began to fall in love. Though each gave good performances individually and with their respective performing partners (Phil and Judy), their duets felt flat and their love scenes were slightly awkward.
Apart from his interactions with Cockerell, Barrus gave a good performance as leading man Bob Wallace. His duets with Metting were charming and fun, and I was impressed that he was able to keep up with Metting’s dance moves. Barrus was charming and energetic with a good singing voice and nice stage presence. The scene with Bob and Susan on the Inn’s front porch was especially touching, probably helped in no small part by their offstage relationship as father and daughter. His rendition of “Count Your Blessings,” sung to little Susie, was tender and sweet and definitely a take-away of the night for me.
The only real issue with Plaza’s production of White Christmas — and of many Plaza productions I’ve seen — is their insistence on cramming a full-sized cast into such a small space. The dance ensemble was so large that I was constantly on edge waiting for two or more dancers to crash into one another (and I did see some near misses). The closing number had the stage so crowded that it was impossible to pick out the principals in the melee. While the vocal corps added a nice depth to the group numbers, they were almost off stage and therefore out of the way, which was fine. The dancers, on the other hand, were obviously in over their heads, off-count in tap numbers that should have been sharp and perfectly timed. I had to wonder at first if it was Tiffany Mullins’s choreography that resulted in the confusion. However, the dance numbers with Metting and Nicolas were so charming and made such effective use of the stage that it seems the dancers’ lack of space was the ultimate culprit.
White Christmas had more than enough charm to make up for its few failings, and I smiled throughout it, lost in just the type of nostalgia Berlin was aiming for. It isn’t surprising that Plaza is considering adding another weeknight performance because they are sold out through December. Their reputation is widespread and well-deserved. And when the audience joined in with the cast to sing the final reprise of “White Christmas,” I felt like my holiday season had officially begun.
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