‘White Christmas’ banishes all holiday humbugs

Pictured: Vanessa Sonon, Jacob ben Widmar, and the 2017 cast of the Ogunquit Playhouse production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the musical at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH. Photo by Julia Russell

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – This historic seaside port embraces the holiday season in many ways, and this season it has a show well worth embracing: the Ogunquit Playhouse production of the musical “White Christmas” at the downtown Music Hall

It’s a big, grand musical based on the classic 1954 Paramount movie starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, the kind of show that you don’t see too often, since it costs a lot of money to hire a large cast and make it snow not only onstage, but in the audience as well.

This production features a cast of 24 singing Irving Berlin’s nonpareil score — which includes “Sisters,” “Happy Holiday,” “Counting My Blessings,” “Blue Skies” as well as the iconic title tune — played by a big, bold, brassy orchestra.

The cast includes attractive principals, some wizened old pros in key character roles, and even a charming child upstaging her elders.

The paper-thin plot is actually more of a clothes hanger to hang the gorgeous productions numbers on, a variation on the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland MGM “Let’s put on a show” theme.

Ten years after they were a song and dance team in the Army, performing for their fellow soldiers during World War II, it is 1954 and the song and dance team of Bob Wallace (David Elder) and Phil Davis (Jacob ben Widmar) have made it big on Broadway and TV.

Before embarking on a Christmas visit to Miami from New York City by train, they decide to act on a tip from an old war buddy and check out a sister act — the Haynes Sisters — for their upcoming revue.

They are dazzled by the act (“Sisters”) and Phil and Judy Haynes (Vanessa Sonon) hit it off quickly, while Bob and Betty Haynes (Kate Loprest) get off to a rocky start.

The sisters are headed to Vermont to perform over Christmas, and Phil decides he and, unbeknownst to him until it’s too late — Bob — will follow.
The “Snow’ number is a fast, funny production number that takes place on the train.

Once they get there, they find there’s no snow thanks to a warm spell and the inn run by their former company commander in World War II — General Henry Waverly (Steve Brady) — is in dire financial straits.

Bob and Betty have become a couple — but are quickly uncoupled by a misunderstanding. The boys and the girls organize a show to raise money for the general, and send out an SOS to former Army buddies to come to Vermont and help save the day.

The production numbers, according to director Jayme McDaniel’s program notes, bear the fingerprints of the late Bob Fosse, although the original choreography is credited to Randy Skinner, recreated and adapted here by Kelli Barclay.

The dancing is simply wonderful, including the “Blue Skies” tap number that caps the first act, a marvelous display of skill, precision, and stamina. Then there’s the show-stopping “I Love a Piano” at the top of Act II, with ben Widmar as Phil and Sonon as Judy leading the way. Director McDaniel has recruited a strong company of hoofers who are able to keep pace with the talented principals.

There are several characters straight from Central Casting. The indomitable, unstoppable Sally Struthers is Martha Watson, the crusty “concierge” at the inn who — as luck would have it — happens to be a former song and dance star named “Megaphone” Martha Watson, modeled after Ethel Merman.

The inn’s handyman/lights and sound man, Ezekiel Foster, Kevin Farley, fashions an accent not found in nature, a sort of Downeast Maine/Yankee meets “Darryl, Darryl and My Other Brother Darryl” from TV’s “The Bob Newhart Show,” which also took place at a Vermont inn .

And where would we be without the requisite cute, star-struck kid, in this case Susan Waverly, the general’s granddaughter, performed with great aplomb by Bunny Baldwin.

White Christmas” is one continuous holiday card, until a towering Christmas tree finally gives way to a Currier & Ives scene of a snow-laden Vermont countryside for the finale (“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”) as snow cascades down onto the stage and the audience.

If you’re looking for a good-hearted, good-humored and often spectacular way to send those holiday humbugs scurrying for cover, this is your show.

The Ogunquit Playhouse production of “White Christmas.” Based on the Paramount Pictures motion picture. Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Book by David Ives and Paul Blake. Scenic design by Anna Louizos. Lighting design by Richard Latta. Costume design by Carrie Robbins. Sound design by Kevin Heard. Original choreography by Randy Skinner, recreated and adapted by Kelli Barclay. Directed by Jayme McDaniel. At the Music Hall, Portsmouth, through Dec. 17. TheMusicHall.org.

Pictured: Vanessa Sonon, Kate Loprest, Jacob ben Widmar, David Elder, and the 2017 cast of the Ogunquit Playhouse production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the musical at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH. Photo by Jay Goldsmith