Long before the advent of the sorry tradition that is Black Friday — a day as antithetical to the Christmas spirit as any could be — there was Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." Before cutthroat corporate greed turned our collective holiday sensibilities into empty consumerism, there was "White Christmas." And long after the last pointless plastic bauble makes its way from the assembly line to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, "White Christmas" will still be with us.
Against all odds, the sweetness of the film, the song and the production endures.
The antiquated (and oddly globetrotting) story takes us from the battlefields of Europe during World War II to the opportunism of the contemporaneous American club circuit, ultimately settling us gently into the rustic charms of a Vermont inn during an unseasonably warm Christmas. The characters' motives are simple and true; the story is amiable. "White Christmas" comes from a time in our history when sentimentality trumped cynicism, nowhere more notably than on the silver screen. Many of these themes, however, can feel anachronistic in today's America, and my inner cynic was interested to hear how the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production would deliver them to the contemporary theatergoer.
"I think that's what makes the show so well-liked," said actor Sarah Agar (Judy Haynes). "You know, love and loss and happiness and being with family and holidays, those sentiments are with you no matter what time period you grow up in. And I think that's the special thing that draws people in, and is going to make this authentic."
While the rosy romanticism of yesteryear might beguile us, what we mostly take away from "White Christmas" is the majesty of Irving Berlin's music. It is difficult to overstate Berlin's genius as a songwriter. Music Director Mark Binns pays tribute to the musical arrangements of the 1954 film. "It has basically what everybody loves about an Irving Berlin song," actor Jennifer Sheehan (Betty Haynes) said, "but multiply that by 20 voices singing it. So you've got six-part harmonies, eight-part harmonies, songs that are really jazzy. The arrangements in the show are really inventive, really neat."
Case Dillard (Phil Davis) said some of the harmonies are not from the original, "although some of the close harmonies are classic, like The Andrews Sisters," the Swing-era singing group known for their sparkling, pitch-perfect harmonies. The group came up again and again in speaking with the cast. "I mean some of the numbers are very Andrews Sisters, very McGuire Sisters, but like amped-up by a whole cast of people singing them sometimes, so that's really fun," Sheehan said. "These songs are fun to sing."
If ever there was a truism in theater, it is this: If the cast is having fun performing, the audience will have fun watching. Agar said offhandedly that "White Christmas" is "so well-written that it doesn't really need the actors to put that much more into it."
That very well may be, but Agar and the rest of the cast nonetheless bring a heap of talent to The Rep's production. Here's a quick list of accolades: Among other shows, Cincinnati native Agar has performed in "Hello, Dolly!" at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina and West Virginia Public Theatre's productions of "Cats" and "Anything Goes." Dillard, who grew up in Little Rock, most recently played Bert in the national tour of "Mary Poppins" (after understudying the role on Broadway), as well as performing for the Obamas as part of the 2010 Fourth of July celebration at Ford's Theatre. Sheehan has performed at Carnegie Hall and with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and has performed a critically acclaimed one-woman show everywhere from Palm Springs to New York to England. The polite and soft-spoken Shane Donovan (Bob Wallace) last appeared as Lt. Joe Cable in the national tour of "South Pacific."
The Rep's Nicole Capri is directing and supervising choreography, right on the heels of The Rep's Summer Musical Theatre Intensive production "Singin' on a Star."
"White Christmas" runs Friday, Nov. 30, through Dec. 30. Curtain is at 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays at 7 p.m. and 2 p.m. for Sunday matinees. Wednesday, Nov. 28, is "Pay-What-You-Can Night" and there is a sign-interpretation performance on Dec. 5. Tickets are $25-$60. Student tickets are half-price with valid ID.