There may not be snow on the ground in San Diego this (or any) year, but this Christmas will indeed be White—for the next week at least—thanks to the folks at San Diego Musical Theatre, who are bringing the live stage adaptation of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas to L.A.’s neighbor to the South. With ever imaginative director Todd Nielson at the helm, and a quartet of stellar triple-threats in the leading roles, SDMT’s Irving Berlin’s White Christmas delivers plenty of holiday entertainment.

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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.

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 (David Engel) and Phil Davis (Jeffrey Scott Parsons), 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 (Ed Hollingsworth), 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.

2 A letter from a former army buddy asks them to audition sister act Betty and Judy Haines (Laura Dickinson and Jill Townsend), 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.

8 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?

Though not the best age match as Army buddies, in all other respects Engel and Parsons could hardly be better in their iconic roles. Broadway vet Engel is to L.A. theater what Gene Kelly was to Golden Age Hollywood musicals, with Parsons fitting quite snuggly into Donald O’Connor’s boy-next-door shoes. Each dazzles in his big dance number, Engel showing off fancy footsteps in Blue Skies while Parsons and the lovely Townsend are positively taptastic in I Love A Piano.

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Both leading men have great chemistry with their leading ladies, Engel opposite the luscious Dickinson, whose vocals are the next best thing to having one of the great songstresses of the ’40s and ‘50s live and onstage in San Diego circa 2012, and Parsons opposite bright and bubbly San Diego native Townsend.

Hollingsworth is a solid General Waverly, sixth-grader Casey Elizabeth Hall-Landers is big-voiced, pint-sized charmer, and San Diego’s gifted Brandon Joel Maier makes Ralph Sheldrake more than simply cardboard support. As for Karla J. Franko, it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar Scenie-winner’s work that she makes the part of housekeeper/receptionist Martha quirkily, indelibly her own.

Vocal highlights include Dickinson’s sultry, smoky “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me” and “How Deep Is The Ocean,” Engel’s and Dickinson’s warm and tender “Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep,” and “Falling Out Of Love Can Be Fun,” sung in three part Andrews Sisters harmony by the dynamic trio of Dickinson, Townsend, and Franko. And it wouldn’t be White Christmas without “Sisters,” Betty and Judy’s signature song later reprised by Bob and Phil looking leggy indeed.


Performing Lisa Hopkins’ lively choreography are ensemble members Eric Badique, Jeni Baker, Amy Batchelor (Cigarette Girl), Deborah Fauerbach, Shelby Fuentes, Max Gidaley, dance captain Keenon Hooks (Jimmy), Luke H. Jacobs (TV announcer), Danielle Levas, Michael J. Marchak, Jennifer Simpson, Katy Tabb (Rita), Ritchie Diego Valenzuela, and Stephanie Wolfe (Rhoda).

Bright cameo performances are delivered by Jeremy Shull (Mike, Mr. Snoring Man), Ria Carey (Mrs. Snoring Man, Seamstress), William Cobb (Ezekiel Foster), Chelsea Emma Franko (Tessie, Asst. Seamstress), and Rayme Sciaroni (Scooter).

Completing the cast are band singers Jim Chatham, Elise Harvey, Ashlee Mayer, and Christopher Valentine.

San Diegans seeing White Christmas at the beautiful Birch North Park Theatre won’t be getting the kind of gorgeous, three-dimensional set design other productions have offered. The musical unfolds in front of a 21-piece orchestra seated upstage big band style, with four band singers adding their harmonies throughout the evening. Though I couldn’t help wishing for a more traditional scenic design, there can be no complaints about hearing those Berlin classics performed to the rich instrumental accompaniment provided by musical director-conductor whiz Don LeMaster’s couldn’t be better orchestra.

Costumes are Deborah Roberts’ colorful period designs. Jean-Yves Tessier and Cricket S. Myers provide (respectively) the production’s expert lighting and sound designs. On a less positive note, thumbs down to the uncredited wigs plopped down on the heads of female ensemble members.

Rogelio Rosales is technical director and Jennifer Wheeler-Kahn production stage manager.

With Engel, Dickinson, Parsons, and Townsend delivering socko performances and some of the best big band sounds you’re likely to hear any time soon on a musical theater stage, San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas provides considerable Christmas cheer this holiday season.

The Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Avenue, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
December 16, 2012
Photos: Ken Jacques

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