Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Irving Berlin's White Christmas
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, The Norwegians and Triple Espresso


Jenny Piersol and Brian Sostek
Photo by Rich Ryan
Holiday entertainments come in all sizes. There are intimate shows, for example, Bradley Greenwald's The Longest Night (at Open Eye Figure Theatre) and Minnesota Jewish Theater Company's The Magic Dreidel; mid-size shows, such as Penumbra's Black Nativity or Theater Latte Da's A Christmas Carole Peterson; and big shows like Cinderella at Children's Theatre and the dean of the lot, the Guthrie's A Christmas Carol. But the Ordway out-sizes them all with its gigantic, beautifully staged offering of "Irving Berlin's White Christmas." This show epitomizes "Big." Fortunately, it also offers abundant talent, style, and music you can tap your way home to. The stage musical has played on Broadway and toured nationally, including a stop at the Ordway several years back. This, however, is an original Ordway production directed by the estimable James Rocco, mounted by local stage artists for a four week run, with top-flight production values and performances in league with Broadway-launched touring companies.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas is based on the 1954 hit movie (#1 in box office for its year) and features glorious songs from the Irving Berlin catalogue, including the title tune, of course—which was, ironically, written not for that movie but for the earlier Holiday Inn. In fact, the only song Berlin wrote expressly for the film is the poignant "Count Your Blessings." We also get "Happy Holidays," Let Yourself Go," "Blue Skies," "I Love a Piano," "How Deep is the Ocean," "Sisters," and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy."

The songs are not simply sung, they are staged, each and every one, with terrific dancing (director James Rocco does double duty as choreographer) and choral singing by a skilled ensemble, elaborate set pieces (designed by Anna Louizos), colorful costumes—sleek nightclub wear and winter apparel—that look great being twirled on a dance floor (designs by Carrie Robbins and Lynda L. Salisbury), and atmospheric lighting designed by Pamila Gray. For an encore, "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" is tossed in, with white-muffed dancers creating the effect of ice skating beneath falling snow. Music director Jeff Rizzo conducts a full orchestra that makes every song sound great.

There is a plot, but it is as treacly as the plots of many of those same Golden Age stage and movie musicals. Two best army buddies, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, return from World War II to become a famous song and dance act. The night before they are to head to Florida to open a new show, they meet a pair of sisters (Betty and Judy Haynes) with an act of their own. Bob and Phil are each smitten with one of the sisters at first sight, and instead of Florida, they follow the gals to their gig at a wintry inn in rural Vermont.

The universe of musicals being a small world, it turns out that the inn is owned by the guys' beloved former commander in the Army, General Waverly, along with his indispensable concierge, Martha Watson, and to up the adorable quotient, his grand-daughter Susan, visiting from California for the holidays. The General is not as adept at running an inn as he was at running a battalion, and the inn is on the brink of failure. Bob and Phil jump in to save the day by opening their new show there instead of in Florida. They have all the kids (that's what they call the men and women who sing and dance in the show) head up to Vermont, set up shop in the barn behind the inn, and voila!

As for the Bob-Betty and Phil-Judy romances, there are some downs and ups to be sure, mostly the type that could be avoided if people talked to each other, but then what would they do for a plot? Still, anyone who doesn't know from the first chords of the overture that this show will have a happy ending doesn't get out enough.

Slight and predictable as the narrative is, the winning performances make it work. In particular, Dieter Bierbrauer as Bob Wallace and Ann Michels as Betty Haynes have chemistry as the plot's main couple. They project real feelings in their initial resistance to love, anxiety about losing it, and the glory of knowing the real thing. And both sing beautifully and move with grace, as they have in many other performance. As the plot's "second couple" (a regular device of Golden Age shows), Brian Sostek, as Phil Davis, and Jenny Piersol, as Judy Haynes, play characters with more mischief up their sleeves. Sostek, known especially as a dancer, takes the lead and brings Piersol along in a beautifully executed "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing." Michels and Piersol shine in their duet "Sister," mimicked delightfully by Bierbrauer and Sostek in act two.

Thomasina Petrus, as Martha Watson, has a couple of big numbers, and when her time comes, the house is hers! Her rendition of "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" stops the show. She joins Michels and Piersol for a terrific spin of "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun," a witty number with a great Andrews Sisters sound. James Michael Detmar is a fitting stout-hearted General Waverly, crust on the outside with a sentimental interior. Valerie Wicks performed the role of his granddaughter Susan on opening night, charming the socks off everyone and showing off a strong belt (she alternates in the role with Natalie Tran). Theater veteran Richard Ooms has fun with the throwaway part of Ezekiel, the archetype of a New England handyman whose handy days are behind him.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas is big, but so is its heart. The simplicity of the story and the open-faced warmth of Berlin's songs make this a great show for shutting down the full agendas and stress of the holiday season (and pretend the polar vortex has not arrived), and just feel good for a couple of hours. And, if you have a soft spot for these songs, for gorgeous design, inventive staging and an optimistic point of view, feeling good can turn into feeling great before the performance is through.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas continues at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through December 31, 2016. 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets from $154.50 - $39.00. For tickets call 651 224-4222 or go to www.ordway.org/.

Music and Lyrics: Irving Berlin; Book: David Ives and Paul Blake; Director and Choreographer: James A. Rocco; Musical Director and Conductor: Jeff Rizzo; Set Design: Anna Louizos; Costume Design: Carrie Robbins; Additional Costume Design: Lynda L. Salisbury; Lighting Design: Pamila Gray; Sound Design: Andy Horka/Big Air Productions; Hair and Make-Up Design: Robert A. Dunn; Props Design: Rick Polenek; Associate Music Director: Raymond Berg; Casting: Reid Harmsen; Production Manager: Andrew G. Luft; Production Stage Manager: Sharon Bach.

Cast: Dieter Bierbrauer (Bob Wallace), Gary Briggle (Mike Nulty, Mr. Snoring Man, Regency Room Announcer, Ed Sullivan Announcer), Brooke Davis (Tessie, Mrs. Snoring Man, Seamstress), James Michael Detmar (General Henry Waverly), Jessica Fredrickson (Cigarette Girl), Larissa Gritti (Rhoda), Caroline Innerbichler (Rita), Ann Michels (Betty Haynes), Kevin Nietzel (Jimmy, Dance Captain), Richard Ooms (Ezekiel Foster), Thomasina Petrus (Martha Watson), Jenny Piersol (Judy Haynes), Randy Schmeling (Ralph Sheldrake, Train Conductor), Brian Sostek (Phil Davis), Natalie Tran (Susan Waverly )*, Valerie Wick (Susan Waverly) *. * alternating performances

Ensemble: Lisa Bartholomew-Given, Brooke Davis, Jessica Fredrickson, Larissa Gritti, Reid Harmsen, Caroline Innerbichler, Kayla Jenerson, Brad Madison, Louise Madison, Abigail Magalee, Joey Miller, Kole Nelson, Kevin Nietzel, Rudolph Searles III, Krysti Wiita.


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