Monday, December 6, 2010

Millbrook: "Irving Berlin's White Christmas: the musical"

The holiday spirit has come to Millbrook in a charming production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas: the musical. Taking its cue from the 1955 film, but with several additional songs by Berlin interspersed throughout its two-and-a-half hour length, director A. John Collier's production is delighting its sold out audiences.

In part a backstage musical, in part a traditional love story, in part a patriotic statement so necessary in times of war, and in part just plain old nostalgic sentiment for the hoildays -- this version warms the heart from beginning to end.

Despite the limitations of a small stage [though Millbrook's stage has been permanently enlarged for this production], Collier & Company have created a workable space to house several scenic locations and a large number of actors -- 31 to be precise. Quite an accomplishment.

In addition, Collier has mixed some of the area's most experienced actors with a number of newcomers to his stage, built some stunning costumes, and delivered a solid show that could transform any Grinch or Scrooge in the audience.

In 1954, veteran song & dance team Bob Wallace [David Brown] and Phil Davis [Jason Morgan] are about to rehearse a new nightclub act in Miami, and are impressed by a new act by sisters Betty [Brooke Brown] and Judy Haynes [Lauren Morgan].

Attempting a love-match between Bob & Betty, Phil switches their train tickets for ones to Vermont where the girls have been booked for the Christmas holidays at an inn owned coincidentally by retired General Waverly [Roger Humber], who the men had served under in World War II.

The inn is on the verge of bankruptcy, and balmy weather threatens its holiday bookings. To help the General, Wallace & Davis conscript their entire cast & crew to rehearse in Vermont and add the Haynes Sisters as headliners.

As is to be expected, this chestnut of a play has assorted romantic misfirings, but all will turn out for the best...the show must go on, the inn saved, and the pairs of sweethearts united.

Solid performances and strong vocals hold this White Christmas together. Mr. Morgan is an excellent comic foil to Mr. Brown's more serious character. Their romances are innocently depicted and aided by the ingenuous style of Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Morgan. All four are effervescent in their roles.

Mr. Humber delivers one of the most convincingly truthfull and understated characterizations of his long community theatre career as the General. -- The General's granddaughter Susan is played by Maddie Hughes; she performs the role credibly and is featured in a rousing version of "I'm Happy".

The role of the housekeeper has been enlarged in this stage version to an Ethel Merman type known as Martha "the megaphone" Watson [Eleanor Davis], who also wants to be in the Wallace & Davis show. And deliver she does. Ms. Davis gives a standout performance as a feisty realist with a motherly concern for Susan and a loving attitude for the General. She can belt out her songs with the best of them, and her bright smile literally lights up the stage.

Irving Berlin's songs create a holiday atmosphere. Those who recall the film are irresistably drawn to novelty numbers like "Sisters" and sentimental favorites like "Count Your Blessings", but it is the signature "White Christmas" that has everyone in the audience singing along and exiting the theatre with the holiday spirit.