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Theater review: They’ve got The Song down, and plenty more

When I say that “White Christmas” at the Spokane Civic Theatre will be a crowd-pleasing hit, I am not merely guessing.

On opening night, the Civic announced from the stage that the entire run, all the way through Dec. 19, was nearly sold out.

In other words, the crowds have apparently been pleased even before they’ve seen it. This is, after all, the stage version of the sentimental Bing Crosby 1954 movie, right here in Bing’s hometown.

But do they pull it off? Mostly, yes.

The Civic’s “White Christmas” has two great leads – Kevin Partridge as Bob Wallace, the Bing role, and Andrea Dawson as Betty Haynes, the Rosemary Clooney role. It also has two equally fine character performances by the terrific Cameron Lewis as Phil (the Danny Kaye role) and the bubbly Siri Hafso as Judy (the Vera-Ellen role). They’re just plain fun to watch (also, they can tap).

Throw in Kathie Doyle-Lipe, stealing a few scenes in comic relief as Martha, and you have a pretty decent live re-creation of the movie.

The big question is this: Do they pull off The Song? The answer is yes, twice.

The first time, Partridge delivers a smooth and simple Bing-like version from World War II France. The second time, in the finale, the entire ensemble joins in from a Vermont country inn as glittering snowflakes drift softly down. We in the audience get to sing along, as well.

Do you really need to know anything more about this show?

Maybe not, but we must give some credit to the people who put together such a complicated production. Costumer Jan Wanless and her crew did a spectacular job of making more than 1,000 costume pieces – many characters have a dozen or more costume changes. The costumes helped turn the duo dance number, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” into an uncommonly eye-pleasing scene. Hafso wears a shimmering emerald dress and Lewis wears a matching vest.

Of course, director-choreographer Troy Nickerson also had plenty to do with the look and success of that number. Nickerson’s gift for staging big dance numbers – as well as his gift for extracting great comedy performances – is evident in every scene. Also evident is his ability to teach a young and talented chorus ensemble how to sell a song.

Technical wizards Peter Hardie and David Baker performed their daunting tasks well. This show has sets ranging from a war-torn French village, to Ed Sullivan’s stage, to a railroad car, to the Columbia Inn in Vermont. They used a variety of methods, ranging from painted backdrops, to Currier & Ives-like flats, to fold-out sets, to make it all flow swiftly and smoothly.

The final backdrop – a snowbound inn in the moonlight – evokes a beauty and nostalgia that precisely matches the show’s mood.

Still, don’t go expecting “White Christmas” to be anything approaching great drama. The story is pure ’50s show-biz romantic schmaltz, complete with the requisite phony misunderstandings that prevent Bob and Betty from realizing that they have, of course, fallen in love at first sight. But they have to pretend to despise each other for most of the show.

And there are a few unpolished moments in the production. The pit orchestra, larger than the usual Civic orchestra, sounded hesitant and off-rhythm in the overture and in a first few songs. But they later hit their stride, especially in their syncopated version of “Blue Skies,” a song that makes it clear that Irving Berlin was a genius. Partridge sold that song with style.

By the way, I should also mention that Andrea Dawson once again proves she has the best voice on Spokane’s stages.

And just when I thought that this show was content-free, Irving Berlin provided me with a cure for insomnia, via song. When you’re having trouble sleeping, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Try it. It just might make your day merry and bright.

The show continues through Dec. 19. Call (509) 325-2507 for ticket information.

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Then and Now: Comstock Park

James M. Comstock, born in 1838 in Wisconsin, arrived in Spokane in time to witness the great fire of 1889 and start Spokane Dry Goods with Robert Paterson. It became the Crescent, Spokane’s premier department store for a century. He also worked in real estate and owned other businesses. He served a term as Spokane mayor, starting in 1899. James Comstock died in 1918.