Cabrillo Music Theatre’s December gamble—a four-day, seven-performance post-Christmas staging of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas—has paid off in a terrific production, directed with imagination and flair by Todd Nielsen and starring some of the Southland’s finest triple-threat talents.

Six-time Ovation Award winner David Engel is reteamed with his CMT Singin’ In The Rain costar Randy Rogel, winner of the Ovation for his work in that production, in the parts made famous by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the 1954 Paramount Pictures movie classic. Simply put, the roles of Bob Wallace (Engel) and Phil Davis (Rogel) could not be in better hands, and the two musical theater stars are surrounded by supporting performers whose work is every bit as top-notch.

For anyone growing up in the pre-VCR era, White Christmas (the movie) was an eagerly awaited holiday TV tradition, and with DVDs viewable year-round, I’d venture to guess that many if not most in the audience will be familiar with its show biz plot. (David Ives and Paul Blake’s book sticks close to the movie’s screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank.) Wallace and Davis are Army buddies headlining a Christmas show for the troops somewhere in Europe in December of 1944. The event is also a sendoff for retiring Major General Thomas F. Waverly, beloved by his fighting men. Cut to ten years later, with Bob and Phil having made it big in nightclubs, radio, and TV’s Ed Sullivan Show. A letter from a former army buddy asks them to audition sister act Betty and Judy Haines, which they do, and are suitably impressed even after it turns out that the letter was actually written by Judy.  A series of unexpected mishaps has all four arriving in unseasonably warm Vermont at the Columbia Inn, whose owner turns out to be none other than … General Waverly! In true show biz plot tradition, the Inn is in financial trouble and what better way to get it back in the black again than (can you guess?) put on a show! Further complications ensue—and love blooms in record time for our two heroes with our two heroines.

Engel quickly makes it clear that his half-dozen Ovations were no flukes, his magnetic performance as Bob showcasing the Broadway vet’s vocal and acting chops, and dance numbers like “Blue Skies” once again proving Engel to be today’s answer to Gene Kelly. The pixyish charm Rogel brought to the role of Cosmo in Singin’ In The Rain is again on display in White Christmas, and his hoofing in “I Love A Piano” inspires loud cheers and applause.

Jennifer Mathews reprises her role as Betty from FCLO’s recent production, and she is even better here, imbuing the part with bona fide warmth and singing Berlin standards like “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me” and “How Deep Is The Ocean” in a rich, expressive voice that can belt as well as it can sing legit. Cassie Silva is Judy, and for anyone wanting to catch a future Broadway star at the beginning of her career, White Christmas provides a perfect opportunity to see possibly the most captivating young triple-threat in contemporary ScCal musical theater. Silva’s chemistry with Rogel is palpable, and Engel clicks equally well with Mathews, his loveliest leading lady since Tami Tappan Damiano. 

Besides Berlin classics like “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing, “Sisters,” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” White Christmas’s stage adaptation has as excitingly staged dance sequences as you’re likely to see this or any other holiday season.  Melissa Giattino has choreographed a slew of musical numbers to perfection, basing them on Randy Skinner’s original Broadway choreography, but adapting and expanding them to fit the talents of this production’s gifted cast.  Giattino’s staging of “I Love A Piano” begins simply, with Rogel and Silva tapping together to the familiar Berlin melody, and then gets bigger and better as the two stars are joined by a dozen and a half of the best dancers in town, the musical number building in intensity and perfectly synchronized high energy taps, ending up a dance sequence which equals and maybe even tops those in CMT’s sensational production of 42nd Street.

Supporting performances are all-around first-rate, particularly Karla J. Franko’s as the feisty, big-voiced Martha, who belts out “Let Me Sing And I’m Happy” with the best of Broadway Babies, and joins Mathews and Silva in a delightful “Falling Out Of Love Can Be Fun.”  Ron Rezac is a believably military General Waverly, Erin Ticktin a petite charmer as Susan, and Tony Pinizzotto an ingratiating dynamo as Mike. The duo of Ann Myers and Laura Thatcher make their every delightful moment count as Oxydol Girls Rita and Rhoda, and have great comic interplay with Rogel.  Michael Catlin has good moments as Sheldrake, though his rapid-fire speech patterns make many of his lines difficult to understand. Bob Van Dusen gets many laughs as slow-moving New Englander Ezekiel. Randy Ryder’s character nicely completes the show’s speaking roles, and “Band Singers” Nicholas Benitez, Patrick Robert Kelly, Noelle Marion, and Danielle Skalsky provide beautiful background harmonies.

Still, if Engel, Rogel, Mathews, and Silva can be said to share star billing with anyone in this production, it’s with the show’s tip-top dance ensemble, doing Broadway-caliber work in musical number after musical number.  Once again Cabrillo Music Theater has rounded up amazing triple-threat talents the likes of Cory Bretsch, Jennifer Foster, Alison Haggerty, dance captain Matt Hoglund, Keenon Hooks, Kat Liz Kramer, Holly Long, Alida Michal, Myers, Erin Perkins, Daniel Smith, Libby Snyder, Jonalyn Saxer, Clay Stefanki, Jessica Taylor, Thatcher, and Estevan Valdes.  

Director Nielsen has staged White Christmas as if it were a 1950s TV Christmas special, with minimal set design.  The production’s fabulous 22-piece orchestra, conducted by musical director extraordinaire Darryl Archibald, is seated onstage behind bandstands throughout the show, just as they might have been on a Perry Como or Andy Williams special. Action unfolds up-close to the audience, much of it where the orchestra pit would normally be, with set pieces brought on and off stage to suggest the musical’s many scene changes. Though, to a certain extent, a big Broadway-scale set design is missed, this less-is-more approach focuses attention on the performers and performances, and on Nielsen’s ingenious staging.  A prime example is the musical number “Snow,” sung by Vermont-bound train travelers. Since the train seating is moveable, at one particular moment benches are lined up one behind the other facing the audience, thereby turning the train passengers into rollicking sleigh riders.

Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting is very good as always, though the designer seems to have been hampered by having fewer downstage lights available to illuminate the usual orchestra pit area. Jonathan Burke’s sound design blends voices and musical instruments crisply and clearly.  Wardrobe supervisor Christine Gibson’s costumes have a nice mid-century feel, though dress lengths often suggest 1964 rather than ’54.  Sarah Hatten’s wigs are mostly period perfect (I love Silva’s blonde bob), though Mathew’s long red tresses are 1944 Rita Hayworth rather than ’54. I know I’m being picky, but I would have liked a bit more attention to detail.

As I complete this review, only two days and three performances remain in White Christmas’s all-too-brief holiday run. With gifted stars like Engel, Rogel, Mathews, and Silva backed by some of the best dancers this side of the Great White Way, this is one December production not to be missed, and in this case, haste is indeed of the essence.  Audiences are guaranteed glistening treetops, sleigh bells in the snow, and a very merry time indeed.

Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.  www.cabrillomusictheatre.com

–Steven Stanley
December 26, 2009

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