One can’t help but feel the warm glow of the holiday spirit watching the endearing production of White Christmas at the Palisade Playhouse in Greenfield. The playhouse is a converted Presbyterian church, which lends itself to rebirth as a theater space with the pulpit turned stage. Typical theater seats are solo and separated, everyone jostling for armrest territory, whereas the seating arrangement of pews embodies the borderless, bringing theatergoers together in warmth and solidarity.
Based on the 1954 classic film of the same name, the musical White Christmas was written by David Ives and Paul Blake with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. The play starts on Christmas Eve 1944. Captain Bob Wallace (Brett Goodnack) and Private Phil Davis (Brandon Keller) are participating in a Christmas variety show for the 151st division they’re part of, spreading holiday cheer to their fellow American troops stationed abroad. Wallace’s jaunty Santa hat and Davis’ rope of bells provide cheery nods to the season as they burst into “Happy Holiday.” General Henry Waverly (John Henry Steelman) busts up the fun, but Steelman plays the cane-holding General as a kind-hearted grandfatherly type. Although Waverly’s remark that there are “no flying reindeer over this corner of hell” reminds us that the somber realities of war rage around them, and even Santa knows enough to make it a no-fly zone.
The next scene fast-forwards us ten years to 1954. Wallace and Davis are singing “Happy Holiday” once again, but they’ve swapped their army green uniforms for showy red blazers. They’re now Broadway stars performing on The Ed Sullivan Show with 11 girls tap dancing behind them Rockette-style in red velvet peplum one-pieces with red-trimmed white satin gloves to match. They’ve transcended from military talent show to a powerhouse performing duo, as evidenced by the women who flock around both men, although only Phil responds with relentless flirting, clearly the playboy of the pair. With this first ensemble, the number of cast members occupying the Palisade stage suddenly surges, and you feel the floor vibrating as they tap in synchrony. The tap dancing girls are all young, ranging in age from roughly 10 to 16, which means not only are their sizes variable but inevitably, their performance quality varies. Toni Dobransky’s choreography could have been sharper given the space constraints. In ensemble scenes sans dance, director Matt Belliston would have benefited from stronger blocking. Actors often seem randomly and distractingly placed on the stage, contributing to poor sight lines and distracting from the main action.
While the young dancers aren’t always in lockstep or evenly spaced in the ensemble numbers, their hearts are big. Each of their multiple appearances garners easy applause from the audience as it’s hard not to be moved by their sweet earnestness. The festive red velvet costumes in the first number definitely enhance the holiday spirit. For what is a simple production, there are a truly staggering number of costume changes, making you wonder just how chaotic things must be backstage, especially with so much young talent. However, that’s all nicely hidden from the audience, and no one misses a beat as far as coming out in the wrong costume or with a piece missing, a testimony to stage manager Carissa Hardy.
In contrast to the parade of show-enhancing costumes, the amateur set design is mostly comprised of poorly painted cardboard pieces. Wallace and Davis end up following a sister act they are sweet on and want to hire for their revue to a Vermont lodge, which has a fireplace chimney that’s an outline of painted rocks on cardboard. The lodge’s main entry room is signified by a pair of painted cardboard windows adorned with curtains that bookend the stage. Clumsy, cumbersome set changes lack fluidity and create unnecessary long breaks in the action, especially given how many there are. The flimsy sets and poor stage lighting during set changes undoubtedly contribute to the lag time.
While the supporting cast is variable in quality, Goodnack’s Wallace and Keller’s Davis as well as the two sisters, Judy and Betty Haynes (played by Julia Lodge and Amanda Leight, respectively) are all delightful. The strongest and most powerful moments in the play are clearly when Goodnack and Leight occupy the stage together. They are both powerful vocalists, and their soulful voices harmonize together and make credible the evolution of their relationship from romantic cynics to sweethearts. Before they even meet, Wallace and Betty both sing “Love and the Weather” to their show partners in decrying their views on love, and Belliston cleverly positions them on opposite sides of the stage in their respective dressing rooms. The song nicely foreshadows them coming together as well as the complications that attend any relationship between two people who belt out “love and the weather, can’t be depended on.”
There are a number of memorable moments throughout the production. John Wheeler’s Ezekiel Foster only responds a monotone “yep” to requests as he helps ready the Vermont lodge’s barn space for Wallace and Davis, then sits alluringly for a few moments and belts out a couple of lines of “I Love a Piano” after Judy and Davis sing it and leave the barn, reminding us we all have a bit of the aspiring performer inside of us. At the finale, the church’s pocket doors are opened in mirror of the opening of the Vermont barn doors when Wallace and Davis perform on Christmas Eve 1954, and everything comes full circle. It’s truly a white Christmas.
White Christmas plays through December 9th at the Palisade Playhouse. To purchase tickets and for more information, click here.
Categories: Archived Reviews