Farmer's Branch — “I feel so happy! What’s wrong with my face? Why can’t I stop smiling? My cheeks hurt. Can tap dancing make a whole theater shake? Is that snow? It’s over? But I want more! Yay, there’s an encore! God bless us, every one.”
I may have looked something like a critic, scribbling madly in the back rows of the Firehouse Theatre on opening night of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas—but inside my head, I was a kid at Christmas.
I know, I’m babbling. But it’s been a while since an old-fashioned slice of American musical theater made me want to jump up and down with an unprofessional screech of “Oh, yeah— that’s how it’s done!” Fresh as new snow, tune-filled and joyful, the Firehouse White Christmas brings to life all the classic scenes and songs of the 1954 Bing Crosby movie—and more.
There’s an updated script from David Ives and Paul Blake that keeps the best dialogue, but plays the story for even more laughter and romance. And “new” songs have been added from the everlasting Irving Berlin songbook (he lived to 101, after all)—classics and less-known surprises to tinsel a tree that had plenty of sparkle to begin with.
Now, the coal in your stocking—you’d better hustle if you want tickets to this fast-selling show, which runs through Dec. 16. Director/choreographer Kyle Christopher West and his team have given us something to remember this season, courtesy of a tiny guy born in Imperial Russia—a Jewish refugee with an uncanny knack of speaking straight to the American heart:
When I’m worried, and I can’t sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.
But oh, where to start?
Perhaps with the aura of good company and holiday cheer that starts to grow even before show time. On opening night, a children’s choir sang carols on the lawn by the front door, and free beignets and cocoa kept coming from a food truck parked nearby. Inside the chilly theater, patrons were offered fleece throws to cuddle under for the evening. By the time the curtain opened, we’d been chatting and laughing together—making friends—and the feeling of warmth and community in the audience seemed to jump straight onto the stage. From the first notes of music, emotions flowed between players and audience that marked this production as something special.
And then there’s the dancing.
Kyle West’s lively routines, polished to a shine by specialized tap choreographer Mandy Modic and kept humming by associate choreographer Carlos Strudwick, are irresistibly enjoyable. “Happy Holidays” and “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” set the bar high, but the bouncy Berlin ragtime “I Love a Piano” definitely tops the tree. It begins in a loose, fun duet—and then grows into a panoramic, roof-raising tap extravaganza as two, three, four dancers at a time come on to add their spin to the fun. One forgets, sitting well back from the stage in a big theater, that in smaller venues tap can sound and feel like massed drumming—a delightfully physical shared experience for players and audience.
Music director John Norine, Jr. works wonders leading a lively six-musician orchestra. (Jared West plays keyboards, and Riley Larson keeps the sound mix bell-clear.) The musicians’ easy versatility (switching from ‘40s girl-group swing to waltzes and cha-chas) supports a cast with plenty of strong singers—led by Jonathan Garcia and Preston Lee Isham as Bob Wallace and Phil Davis (the Crosby and Danny Kaye roles), and Amanda Hart Bassett and Ally Van Deuren as Betty and Judy Haynes, the “sister act” (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in the movie) who find themselves getting involved with these two soldiers-turned-Broadway stars.
West’s vibrant, saturated-color costumes decorate the stage (in particular, a lineup of full-skirted ‘50s dresses in gorgeous lemon yellow) and pop against scenic designer Wendy Searcy’s silvery backdrop of frosted trees and snow. Stage manager Elizabeth Cantrell keeps things moving cinematically: dressing rooms, nightclubs, train cars and country inns fly together in a flurry of furniture and props, then disappear in a twinkling—and designer Cassondra Plybon-Harbin’s lighting helps move us from place to place.
White Christmas, in case you’re the last American to know, is the story of two World War II veterans who come home, become famous song-and-dance men, and follow a pair of singing sisters to their (1954) Christmas gig at a Vermont inn owned (gasp!) by their much-loved wartime general. And “the old man” is in trouble: snow isn’t falling and customers aren’t coming for Christmas.
Bob and Phil woo the sisters and whistle up a plan to help: they’ll move their latest show to the inn—with the help of glad-handing agent Sheldrake (Riley Arnold)—and invite fellow soldiers to show up for the man who led them through the war. Patrick Persons is perfect—upright and touching—as the proud general Waverly, whose life is kept in order by two strong women: the inn’s nosy housekeeper/manager Martha Watson (funny and feisty Kristal Seid) and little granddaughter Susan (adorable kid-to-watch Gigi Johnson)—who, as it turns out, have something show-bizzy in common: they can both belt a tune.
Garcia and Isham make an amusing pair. Bob’s the awkward workaholic, Phil the smooth skirt-chaser—can we still say that?—who schemes to get Bob (not himself!) settled down with a nice girl. They keep a light, easy comic call-and-response going all evening, and are a holiday hoot in a gender-switch version of Betty and Judy’s comic song, “Sisters.”
Quirky characters abound. Ezekiel Foster (Braiden Fisher), the inn’s laconic handyman, is a walking New England parody. Showgirls Rita and Rhoda (Caitlin Jones and Elizabeth Stevens) are as eyelash-batting and ditzy as a vaudeville skit. Carlos Strudwick is tight-wired and funny as the show’s edge-of-a-breakdown stage manager Mike—who needs a sit-down and a cup of cocoa before he blows. Even tiny roles get a moment in the spotlight: Anthony Ortega plays a snoring train passenger who bursts suddenly into life—and song.
Song highlights include an unexpected pairing of Bassett’s smoky “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” with Garcia’s tender “How Deep is the Ocean”…a sprightly Andrews Sisters-style trio of “Falling in Love Can Be Fun” with harmonies from Bassett, Van Deuren, and Seid…Garcia’s sweet and low “Count Your Blessings and Isham’s vocal on “I Love a Piano”…two versions of “Let me Sing and I’m Happy” from Seid and Johnson…the ensemble harmonies of “Snow”…and of course, the whole cast in Berlin’s timeless “White Christmas.”
Without doubt, though, the show’s dancers do just as much to make this White Christmas soar. So for all the high kicks, taps, tumbling, and twinkly toes, jazz hands to the full company— including versatile and energetic ensemble performers Hilary Evitt Allen, Amy Cave, Kate Dressler, Nate Frederickson, David Midkiff, Kimberly Moore, Rodney Morris, and Stephanie Ormston.
Like the Firehouse Music Man this summer, White Christmas tugs at our hearts by pulling us back to a younger America. That America isn’t perfect—but it feels optimistic, forward-looking, and “together” as a nation. That America had been through plenty—economic collapse and world war—but learned to pull together, bounce back, and get ready for what might come next.
How great is it to spend an evening with that America and its music, remembering the people in our lives who loved these songs—and danced to some of them, cheek to cheek. Hot cocoa and fuzzy sweaters to all…and to all a good show!