The eternally young, tireless Irving Berlin (who lived to 101) is one of my all-time heroes.
The quintessentially American songwriter penned 1,500 (both music and lyrics) over the course of his life, without learning how to read music or play in any key but F-sharp (not easy). These include some of the best-selling and most loved songs in history: "God Bless America," "Always," "Easter Parade," "Puttin' On the Ritz," and of course -- perhaps the most popular song of all time -- "White Christmas" (a simple, heartfelt number, with just eight lines, not counting a rarely-done verse).
Originally written for the 1942 Bing Crosby film, "Holiday Inn," the musical longing for snow and happiness was resurrected as the title song in the 1954 holiday-film classic starring Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney.
For the third time in the past nine years, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse is lovingly presenting the stage version of "White Christmas," which perfectly incorporates some wonderful Berlin songs not in the original film -- notably "Blue Skies," "Happy Holiday," "Let Yourself Go," "I Love a Piano" and "How Deep Is the Ocean."
The first production in Circa's 38th season, this technicolor, feel-good holiday spectacular enjoyed successful runs in 2006 and 2007 -- which previously also co-starred the charming Erin Churchill as Judy Haynes, half of the adorable sister act.
After a war-torn prologue in 1944, which introduces us to a high-energy trio of Army buddies (Bob, Phil and Ralph) and a poignant, dreamy version of the title song, 10 years later, Bob (Daniel Hines) and Phil (Trey Getz) become a song-and-dance team and run into the sisters Betty (Sara Tubbs) and Judy (Ms. Churchill), who have their own act.
They eventually head to Pine Tree, Vt., with the girls to put on a show in a barn (naturally) to save the bucolic inn run by their former commanding officer. The tough, grizzled general is played with flawless authority and, later, endearingly humane tenderness by the great Michael Kennedy.
As with its prior productions, this "White Christmas" is expertly directed and choreographed by longtime Circa '21 veteran Ann Nieman, whose credits include some of the theater's most popular shows ("Fiddler on the Roof," "West Side Story," "Grease," "Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Annie").
So, you cannot go wrong with a cast and crew that is packed with prodigious talent -- in the formidable triple threat of first-rate acting, singing and dancing. Crack timing, passion, heart, jaw-droppingly precise dance moves and eye-popping visual treats (thanks to costume designer Gregory Hiatt and scenic artist Susan Holgersson) make this a theatrical Santa bag overflowing with priceless presents.
It's awfully hard to choose a favorite gift here -- they're all so wrapped with the utmost care and affection. The first of many top-notch ensemble numbers is the infectious, exuberant "Let Yourself Go," featuring characteristically sharp hoofers.
The always delightful Bootlegger Marc Ciemiewicz shines again on stage as the boisterous Ed Sullivan producer Ralph Sheldrake -- echoing shades of classic show-biz stars Jackie Gleason and Zero Mostel. Ms. Tubbs and Ms. Churchill are the epitome of cute (pretty much throughout) in the club act, "Sisters."
Ms. Churchill exhibits excellent, stylish dance moves with the smooth, darkly handsome Mr. Getz in "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing." As Bing Crosby's role of Bob, Mr. Hines is less sure, more skeptical and navigates a rockier road to love with Ms. Tubbs' character, both lamenting that love is too much like the weather -- unpredictable and unreliable.
I admire the chorus number "Snow," which chugs along on a train, its rapid, hurtling tempo and sound evoking the car's movement.
Rachelle Walljasper keeps things humming as the wise-cracking, empathetic Martha at the Columbia Inn, and while I normally wouldn't think of her as a "megaphone" Ethel Merman type, she joyfully rips the roof off the place with the brash, razzle-dazzle showstopper "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy."
Even before the first act is over, we're treated to the beautiful, inspiring "Count Your Blessings" (where Bob and Betty finally connect romantically) and the big, bouncy production number, "Blue Skies." I love the blue-hat-topped outfits (how the men and women blend together), and the snazzy, jazzy, buoyant dance that evokes old-fashioned Hollywood glamour exemplified by the classic film.
That spirit continues following intermission with the classy tap dance (again a lively, elated Ms. Churchill and Mr. Getz) of "I Love a Piano." It looks like they're having so much fun, we can't help but, too.
"Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun" is a strong, independent woman anthem, featuring great three-part harmony from the female leads, and "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me" and "How Deep Is the Ocean" offer touchingly appropriate tales for Ms. Tubbs and Mr. Hines, respectively. The scene where Ms. Tubbs sings is the epitome of plush, urbane sophistication, contrasting with the country barn set at the inn.
Ms. Tubbs has a powerful, sympathetic stage presence, with a huskier voice than Ms. Churchill's bright, ringing instrument.
The deeply talented cast includes Kelly Lohrenz and Allison Nock as loud, flirty and dirty chorus girls; Tristan Tapscott as a nervous, frantic stage manager, a kettle on perpetual boil; and young Laila Haley, as the general's perky granddaughter who also longs for the limelight. That role of Susan alternates with Jordyn Mitchell through the Circa run.
What a gift -- let these people sing and I am happy. There are too many blessings to count, and "White Christmas" reminds us again to be grateful for what we have.