Politically and economically speaking, 2011 has been a pretty depressing year. That’s making it pretty tough for many folks to really get into the holiday spirit this Christmas season. But not to worry. Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia has the perfect antidote for those holiday blues with their sprightly, toe-tapping new production of White Christmas.
Based on the Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye hit film musical of 1954, Toby’s stage version brings back all the warmth and nostalgia of the original, driven forward by a lively and energetic cast that really believes in what it’s doing. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this show’s score is chock-full of Irving Berlin’s greatest hits. In addition to the show’s immortal title song, audiences will enjoy additional classics including “Happy Holiday,” “Sisters,” “Count Your Blessings,” “Blue Skies,” “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.”
Berlin’s Christmas song “White Christmas,” originally penned back in the 1930s, gained popularity from the 1942 film hit “Holiday Inn” starring Bing Crosby and exploded into music immortality when it was included in Crosby’s 1949 Christmas album—a recording that remains to this day one of the best selling albums of all times. Naturally, Hollywood wanted to take advantage of the hit and did so with “White Christmas,” the film, in 1954, retooling the “Holiday Inn” plot and creating a post-World War II frame tale to give the film added poignancy for the contemporary audience. The new film again starred Bing Crosby but featured Danny Kaye as his fellow entertainer and wartime pal.
Given Broadway’s recent habit of reworking popular films as musicals the better to avoid financial risk, it’s not surprising that White Christmas, the stage musical, materialized in San Francisco in 2004, eventually landing in New York a few years later.
White Christmas tracks closely with the 1954 film in music, style, and attitude. The film tugged firmly at its audience’s post-war heartstrings with heavy doses of patriotism, optimism, American exceptionalism, and the virtues of hearth, home, and, of course, true love. Viewing it today evokes the kind of dreamy-eyed vision of America that’s not fashionable with critics like New York’s Charles Isherwood – he called it “as fresh and appealing as a roll of Necco wafers found in a mothballed Christmas stocking” – who love everything as long as it has an “edge.”
The “edge” of Toby’s White Christmas, however, is its refreshing and unabashed revival of the good holiday feelings of yesteryear. Rather than trying to rework the whole thing, Toby’s production brings back the romance, the silliness, the occasional sappiness, and perhaps above all the loyalty and solidarity of an America entirely lacking in self-doubt. It’s clean and only occasionally risqué family fun, and the hit parade of real tunes with heartfelt lyrics is widely appealing.
With surprising effectiveness and minimal scenery, Toby’s cast and crew vividly re-create the primary battlefield and country inn scenes of the show, along with brief but effective scenes in a New England-bound train, a ritzy New York performance venue, and the TV studio of the old “Ed Sullivan Show.” Costuming is crisp and efficient and downright showy in the finale, and the closing special effects (which we won’t spoil) come as a delightful surprise.
The cast of Toby’s White Christmas is a pleasant surprise as well. Under the able direction of Larry Munsey and David James, the lead performers do a great job of bringing us back to the 1950s while making them seem as fresh as today.
As Bob Wallace, Larry Munsey gives a somewhat more serious turn to the role initially made famous by Bing Crosby. His vocals are expressive and thoughtful, and his businesslike manner makes his stumbling romance with Betty (Janine Sunday), who’s equally put off by Bob’s seeming distance, quite engaging.
As Betty, Janine Sunday is the perfect foil for Bob, who is baffled by her sense of honor and loyalty, which he first interprets as showgirl shallowness. Ms. Sunday is terrifically attuned to the spirit of the score, and her interpretation of “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me”—sung brilliantly by Rosemary Clooney in the film—is beautifully calibrated and nuanced, a real musical highlight of this show.
As Bob Wallace’s sidekick and lead dude number two, Phil Davis, David James picks up the litheness and antic spirit of the character as it was first expressed by Danny Kaye in the film version. Fleet afoot and with a lilting voice to match, he glides effortlessly through the show’s chief dance numbers with partner Julia Lancione who portrays Betty’s singing sister, Judy Haynes. Ms. Haynes has less to do, musically, than the other three primary characters, but she’s key to injecting life and optimism into the show precisely when it’s needed.
The supporting cast does a great job of giving a big musical feel to Toby’s small performance space, making this show seem much more expansive in size and scope than it actually is—a big plus in this kind of setting. A hat tip as well to choreographer Paula Lynn who guided her cast through the production numbers with panache and without mishap.
Under the musical direction of Pamela Witt, the music for this production is provided chiefly by a keyboard/synthesizer that, backed up by a trumpet and percussion, supplies the richness of a full pit orchestra. Drew Dedrick’s sound design seems a trifle over-amped at times, yet in the main, produces a surprisingly natural sound, a welcome tendency in more and more stage musicals these days.
Since Toby’s is dinner theater, we’d be remiss without at least a note on the dining experience which was a positive one. It’s buffet, of course. We attended the totally-packed matinee performance this past Wednesday and found the brunch-buffet choices generally delightful and plentiful. Dinner theater isn’t the Inn at Little Washington, of course, but the meat and vegetable selections were nicely seasoned, and attractively presented and the ice cream sundae buffet was fun for kids of all ages.
As for the Toby’s White Christmas holiday experience, our advice to you is this: If you want to get in that Christmas spirit without standing in line at Macy’s to deplete your entire bank account, this, for sure, is the show for you. It’s a warm and welcome respite not only from the Christmas rush but from life these days in general. And that’s saying quite a lot.
White Christmas runs thru Jan 8, 2012 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia MD.
Running time: Two and one half hours including intermission. (Also, dinner begins approximately two hours before showtime.)
White Christmas, The Musical
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Music by Irving Berlin
Directed by David James and Lawrence B. Munsey
Music direction by Pamela Witt
Choreography by Paula Lynn
Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theater
Reviewed by Terry Ponick