By Dana Casadei
With Thanksgiving less than a week away, the holidays are already on the mind for many. What presents will you get for your nieces, nephews, children or spouse? Who will cook the feast? Will you be a Santa Claus or an Ebenezer Scrooge? But most importantly, which holiday film will you pop into your DVD player first, or in the case of The Encore Musical Theatre, which festive show will be performed?
Barbara Cullen’s direction and choreography for “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” matches a lot from the 1954 film, which is totally fine. David Ives and Paul Blake’s book is a little cheeky, but has some moments that are so sweet you’ll get a cavity. The musical adds more Irving Berlin songs – this is, after all, titled “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” – and the plot varies slightly, but it doesn’t strain too far from the Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye film we all know and love.
WWII vets Bob Wallace (Jess Alexander) and Phil Davis (Matt Brennan) have turned into one of the most famous, top notch song-and-dance duos of the era. While Phil chases after any woman within a five-mile radius, Bob is much more skeptical about this thing called love.
After receiving a letter from a fellow serviceman about his sisters, Betty (Lauren Conley) and Judy Haynes (Darcy Link), the two men decide to go check out their show. Once there, Phil and Judy hit it off instantly, although Bob and Betty exchange words that will make you forget your own worst date. After some scheming between Phil and Judy, the boys take a slight detour from their Florida plans and end up at the Vermont Inn the girls are performing at. Said inn is owned by Bob and Phil’s former commander, General Waverly (Todd St. George), who isn’t having too much luck in the inn business. You see, there’s no snow and people aren’t eager to stay. Bob and Phil then come up with a plan to help him out, and try to find love in the process.
Filling the shoes of the four legends that played these iconic roles is no easy feat. Turns out some shoes are just too big to fill.
Alexander and Brennan both take on their roles with gusto and charm, proving often that these two were ideal casting. Alexander has a voice that works wonderfully with the Berlin numbers, especially in the jazzy “Blue Skies” and the show’s title song.
But Brennan is the show’s knockout punch. Not only can he sing, but – wow! – can he dance. In Act II’s opening number, “I Love a Piano,” he gets to show off his Fred Astaire-level tap-dancing, earning a much-deserved applause. He also has the ability to make you laugh with one cock of his eyebrow or the ever so slight lift of the corner of his mouth. Brennan is a true triple threat and saving grace in a show that sometimes missed the mark.
While the boys took their roles in stride, Conley, and at times Link, just couldn’t fill the patent leather kitten heels wore by the two blondes before them. Conley’s “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me” will leave you feeling nothing and was a disappointment. Both women are decent dancers, but they just couldn’t match vocally to their romantic counterparts.
The show’s other standouts include Elizabeth Colson, who alternates the role with Sarah Grace Cattell; she is adorable and sassy as General Waverly’s pint-sized granddaughter Susan Waverly. Jenn Bachman’s Martha “Megaphone” Watson has a mean set of pipes, and is the strongest woman vocalist, even though her wig is a little rough to look at.
Daniel C. Walker’s lighting design is pure magic, reflecting off the “barn” walls, created by set designer Toni Auletti, making the shadows dance, which is a really neat effect. His design also moves swiftly across the stage to change from one group to another. Sharon Urick’s costumes fit ever so nicely with the era.
Much like the twinkle lights that pop up everywhere this time of year “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” has a few that shine brighter than others. But when you look at the whole, the sparkle is still there.
‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas’
The Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 22; no performance Thanksgiving Day. 2 hours, 20 minutes. $15-28. 734-268-6200. http://www.theencoretheatre.org