Jeremy Daniel Photography, 2016
Christmas seems to creep earlier into the calendar with each new year. Retail stores fill their shelves with holiday items as soon as they can clear out all of the Halloween candy, and pop radio stations start their inevitable shift into Christmas format before Thanksgiving. Maybe some radio stations already have made the switch this year?
Call this time of year holiday-ish.
What: “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas”
When: Through Nov. 12
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or tickets.waltonartscenter.org
Although the show contains all the aesthetics and values of traditional Broadway musicals, “White Christmas” is actually a relatively young show. It debuted in St. Louis in 2000 before gaining traction at regional theaters and then moving to Broadway for a short run that started in late 2008. National tours brought the show far and wide, including to Fayetteville in 2013. The current national tour stopover opened Tuesday and continues through Nov. 12.
“White Christmas” follows the same path as the 1954 movie of the same name, which stared Bing Crosby and remains a staple of movie channel programming this time of year.
The show begins as two Army buddies, Bob and Phil, entertain fellow troops on Christmas Eve somewhere in Europe. Their beloved commanding officer, General Henry Waverly, announces to his troops at the celebration that he’s being sent home. In his farewell speech, he ponders where they will all be in 10 years’ time.
We soon learn the fate of the main characters a decade later. Bob and Phil, played in the touring production by Sean Montgomery and Jeremy Benton, respectively, have taken their USO-style show to the big time, starring on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and getting recognized in public by adoring fans. General Waverly (played by Conrad John Schuck) has busied himself in his retirement by purchasing a vacation lodge called the Columbia Inn in (usually) snow-filled Pine Tree, Vermont.
Except there’s no snow in 1954 when Bob and Phil follow aspiring sister act the Haynes Sisters (Kerry Conte as Betty Haynes; Kelly Sheehan as Judy Haynes) to Vermont, where they are scheduled to perform on a barn stage at the Columbia Inn. After learning that the Columbia Inn and General Waverly are struggling to draw visitors because of the lack of snow, the stars, particularly Bob, vow to stage a show to bring in fans.
But that plan, meant to be kept secret to surprise the general, gets discovered by the hotel’s front office clerk Martha (played by Karen Ziemba), who in another surprise just happens to be a talented ex-Broadway vocalist. But she only knows part of the plan, and the part she knows immediately halts the budding relationship between Betty and Bob. Betty flees to New York and abandons her role in the musical.
There’s potential to dig into some weighty issues. There’s a bit about the struggles of military veterans to find a job, as discussed in “What Can You Do with a General?” And the characters are all in this mess because of a heat wave in Vermont in December. Sound relevant?
But “White Christmas” mentions these topics in haste and moves on to steadier ground. The show is light as new-fallen snow.
If the characters can’t sing away their troubles, they try to dance it away (or both). The show was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Choreography in 2009 and there’s a lot of movement. The dancing was nearly flawless. Several of the full-cast tap numbers really moved the crowd. It is a very aesthetic-minded show – I counted nine distinct backdrops. The audience on Tuesday night saw one of the backdrops a bit early. A very noticeable missed cue brought the curtain down before a scenic switch was complete. But I think that can be chalked up to first-night-in-a-new-place jitters. This is a well-practiced, slick event. Credit is due to the orchestra as well. I thought they were right on all evening long.
The on-stage musical version of “White Christmas” is a bit like a snow shower at this still-early time of year. It isn’t likely to stick with you very long at all. But seeing a snowflake or two never hurt anyone.
Note: The Walton Arts Center has partnered with Operation Gratitude to send letters to active-duty troops and first responders as a link to the the military element in “White Christmas.” Walton Arts Center CEO Peter Lane on Tuesday asked that all veterans stand up and be recognized by the audience, and they were met with lasting applause. Additionally, the WAC has announced military discounts for the run of “White Christmas,” including up to 50 percent off ticket prices for Thursday’s matinee. To learn more, visit waltonartscenter.org/veterans.