Christmas is a time of embracing customs and repeating annual traditions, and the holiday musical “White Christmas” has become something of a ritual for the Spokane Civic Theatre. Its latest production, which premieres Friday night, marks the third time in six years that the Civic has tackled this show with some of the same cast members.
Directed this time by Jean Hardie, “White Christmas” is a relatively faithful retelling of the 1954 film of the same name, itself a loose remake of the 1942 feature “Holiday Inn,” both of which starred Bing Crosby.
“It’s an old-fashioned piece of musical theater,” Hardie said. “I always think of it as Mickey (Rooney) and Judy (Garland) grew up and they were still putting on a show in a barn.”
Adapted by David Ives and Paul Blake, the musical concerns vaudevillians Bob Wallace (Kevin Partridge) and Phil Davis (Mark Pleasant), Army veterans who have become successful showmen. (Partridge originated the role of Bob in the 2010 production, and Pleasant portrayed Phil in the 2012 revival. Kathie Doyle-Lipe, who plays a cantankerous housekeeper, has now appeared in all three productions.)
The two men team up both professionally and romantically with Betty (Tami Knoell) and Judy (Kayla Mueller), a sister act, and hit the road. During a stopover in Vermont, the guys discover their old Army commander Henry Waverly (Ron Weaks) is the proprietor of a ski lodge, which is struggling during an unseasonably warm winter. Bob, Phil, Betty and Judy decide to call in some favors and put on an elaborate musical revue that will reverse Waverly’s financial prospects.
Despite being set mostly at the mountain resort, the show requires quite a few changes of scenery, especially in its first act. Hardie says some of the technical aspects of the show have proved somewhat difficult, especially while managing a cast of 25.
“It’s based on a film and then they transferred it to Broadway,” she said. “They have a lot of nice theatrical machinery on Broadway. … It’s very challenging. We go to a lot of different places. I’m sure they used hydraulics and running stages when they put it together in New York, not really thinking about community theaters out in the hinterlands wanting to do this show. … But we’ve tried really hard to figure out smooth ways to get from one scene to another.”
One of the show’s biggest draws is, of course, the musical score composed of Irving Berlin tunes. “White Christmas” features most of the songs from the film that inspired it – “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” and the titular song, still the biggest-selling single of all time – as well as additional Berlin-penned pieces like “I Love a Piano” and “Blue Skies.”
“He’s unabashedly sentimental,” Hardie said of Berlin. “He’s not afraid to write a song like ‘Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep).’ He’s not afraid to write a song like ‘White Christmas.’ … Even though he wasn’t born in America, he’s lived the American dream and he loves it, and he celebrates it in his music. It’s optimistic. He spoke to the heart of the people listening to his music.”
And that music is still striking chords with audiences, who Hardie hopes will leave the theater entertained, enchanted and humming Berlin’s iconic tunes.
“Not every song is advancing the plot,” Hardie said. “It’s an old-fashioned musical in that way. Some of the songs do character work, but some of them are just there to gloriously entertain the audience. … We want to touch the hearts of people. I want them to think about the best Christmas they ever had and how it made them feel.”
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