For many Americans, it simply wouldn’t be December without an annual viewing of the Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye holiday movie classic White Christmas, and for the past eight years, theatergoers have been able to experience this seasonal favorite live and in person in its delightful stage adaptation, retitled Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and now playing at Rolling Hills Estates’ Norris Theatre.

 David Ives and Paul Blake’s book sticks close to the movie’s screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank, introducing us to Bob Wallace (Brent Schindele) and Phil Davis (David Lamoureux), 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 (Michael Prohaska), 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 (Gail Bennett and Tro Shaw), 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.

 There are indeed Christmas songs in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, though not as many as you might think. There’s the title tune (the Academy Award-winning second-best selling single of all time), “Happy Holiday,” and “Snow.” That’s all. The rest are Berlin standards, including “Blue Skies,” “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing, “Sisters,” “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” “I Love A Piano” and “How Deep Is The Ocean.” a few of which were not in the movie but added to the stage musical. How’s that for a medley of Berlin hits?

Musical leading men don’t come any more All-American handsome and talented than Schindele, whose leading lady is the enchanting Bennett, returning to SoCal stages following her delightful debut in 3-D’s The Drowsy Chaperone a couple years back. The duo shine in duets “Love And The Weather” and “Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep” and singing in counterpoint “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” and “How Deep Is The Ocean.” That they have great chemistry is icing on the cake.

Chemistry is sizzling too between Lamoureux and Shaw, who get the show’s Fred-and-Ginger song and dance numbers “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” and “I Love A Piano.” Lamoureux, last year’s Scenie-winning Musical Director Of The Year, proves himself a song-and-dance whiz to boot, a tall, lanky comedic lead in the Ray Bolger tradition, and Shaw makes for a terrific Judy with her petite charm and big Broadway voice.

 Polly Seale is fabulous as housekeeper/receptionist Martha, who gets to belt out “Let Me Sing And I’m Happy” and “Falling Out Of Love Can Be Fun,” the latter performed in Andrews Sisters’ harmonies with Bennett and Shaw.

Supporting players are some of Southern California’s best—Prohaska as venerable General Waverly, Juliette Boland as pint-sized belter Susan, Kevin Paul as Army buddy Ralph Sheldrake, Karl Jaecke as slow-moving Vermonter Ezekiel, Peter Schueller as harried stage manager Mike McNulty, and Noelle Marion and Elaine Hayhurst as the bubbly, bubble-headed Rita and Rhoda.

 Directed with holiday flair by Randy Brenner and featuring some of the best choreography in town by Kami Seymour, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at the Norris is highlighted by tap number after tap number, from the Ed Sullivan show’s “Let Yourself Go,” to the Act One closer “Blue Skies,” to the Act Two opener “I Love A Piano,” to the curtain call tap extravaganza “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.”

Anyone needing proof our local triple-threats are every bit as talented as their New York counterparts has only to check out the Irving Berlin’s White Christmas ensemble: Dana Benedict, Quintan Craig (Scooter), Andrea Dodson (Seamstress), Aubrey Elson, Kristen Lamoureux (Cigarette Girl), Ramone Owens (Conductor and Ed Sullivan Announcer), Melinda Porto (Tessie), Steven Rada (Jimmy), Laura Rensing (Mrs. Snoring Man), Thomas Roy (Mr. Snoring Man), and Matthew Thurmond.

Musical director Daniel Thomas gets topnotch vocal performances from all, though one does miss having a live orchestra instead of prerecorded tracks.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas looks and sounds great at the Norris thanks to Andy Hammer’s terrific scenic design, a bevy of colorful costumes provided by The Enchanted Attic and coordinated by Christina Bayer, vivid lighting by local whiz Christina Munich, crystal clear sound design by Matt Janszen, and oodles of ‘50s wigs by Anthony Gagliardi.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is produced by James W. Gruessing, Jr. Chris Warren Murry is stage manager.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas makes for an all-around splendiferous way to celebrate the holidays. After all, when all is said and done, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, now would it?

Norris Theatre For The Performing Arts, 27570 Crossfield Drive, Rolling Hills Estates.

–Steven Stanley
December 9, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger

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