By ART CHANCE
I had never actually seen a real white Christmas until I came to Alaska in 1974. I first saw the movie White Christmas in the 1960s; movies on TV weren’t much of a thing until the 1970s, but soon the movie became a part of our Christmases.
The song “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin, pre-dated the movie by a dozen years, having been introduced to the world by Bing Crosby in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. Crosby’s original version is the largest selling single record in history with over 50 million copies sold.
World War II and the years just after it produced a number of sentimental, nostalgic, and secular Christmas songs that have become a part of the American Christmas canon. I can count on the fingers of one hand the Christmas songs of other than comedic value that have emerged since 1950. By the time I had any cognizance of music in the mid-Fifties, “White Christmas” was an enormously popular song known by almost everyone in the English-speaking world.
The movie was introduced in 1954, and reintroduced to theaters in 1961; it has had several re-releases to various video formats.
A stage version was introduced in San Francisco in 2004, which brings us to Valley Performing Art’s Production of the stage version of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, which opened Nov. 29 in Wasilla.
The original White Christmas has some scenes and dialogue that would seriously trigger today’s snowflakes. Actually, the plot of the original didn’t make a lot of sense, but the music and the emotional appeal made it one of the most popular movies of its time.
The play, however, is from 2004 San Francisco, so the plot is considerably different from the movie. If you only know the movie, you’ll find it familiar, but a lot of things are different.
It is a big, ambitious production; the original had some of the biggest stars in American entertainment. Valley Performing Arts does it with local talent.
First, the bad: The “orchestra” brought back memories of junior high band concerts that you had to attend because your kid was in the band. You sat there just waiting for the next cringe-worthy squeak, squawk, or missed note that your kid might produce. The band sat during the intermission making noise. The director should have gone over to the pianist and screamed “give me a middle C,” and made them tune to it. Those of you who’ve watched “Idol” have heard the judges criticize the performers for being “pitchy.” These “musicians” give pitchy new meaning. The “orchestra” seriously detracts from an otherwise excellent performance.
Then the good: The singing. Jeff Winell as Bob Wallace carries the show; he’s not Bing Crosby, but he’s good. Not only can he belt out “White Christmas,” but he can do some excellent duets. Both he and Ashley Elver as Betty Haynes are superb singing together.
Likewise, Elver and Brea Holben as Betty’s sister Judy Haynes are great together. Throughout, the duets are very, very good, even Windell and Daniel Carrick, as Phil Davis, doing a male rendition of The Haynes Sister’s “Sisters” is quite good and very funny.
The chorus is not quite that of A Chorus Line. The choreography is coarse but it is entertaining. The ensemble singing is generally good but with the larger ensembles the sound mixing is sometimes challenged. This is the first Valley Performing Arts production I’ve seen in which the cast had microphones and there was amplified and mixed sound; or it may be that this was just the first time I noticed because at times the sound detracted. Those of you who know me know that I’m cranky about sound, especially the sound in “The Atwood Barn,” but I usually like Valley Performing Arts’ hall. It may be that I didn’t have good seats (and I almost didn’t have seats at all because I waited until the last minute to get them and the hall was almost sold out) but from my seat, the sound was inconsistent and only those singers with the most powerful voices, Winell and especially Angel Husher-Rodriquez as Martha Watson, had any sort of commanding presence. Husher-Rodriguez all but steals the show with her powerful performance as General Waverly’s Inn Manager, desk clerk, and budding love interest; she has some pipes!
Ashley Elver particularly is ill-served by the sound system leaving her volume too low and her voice indistinct in several of her songs.
So, critics criticize, and there are a few things to be critical of, especially the orchestra, but it is well to remember that this is amateur, small town theater using local talent. In that context, it is an excellent performance, and some of the weaknesses may well have been just opening night jitters. Perhaps Valley Performing Arts should adopt Perseverance Theatre’s practice of doing some pre-opening performances for students or “pay what you can” audiences to find and polish any rough edges.
All in all, VPA’s performance of White Christmas makes for a good family evening to get your Christmas spirit on. Some of the dialog and situations are a little risqué, but it is the 1950’s sort of risqué; it is subtle enough that young children won’t know what their parents are snickering about.
These days I’m more comfortable with an hour’s drive through the moose, weather, and darkness to Wasilla than I am with a 10-minute drive to downtown Anchorage. You can make an evening of it with dinner before the show at any one of several good restaurants and top it off in any one of several watering holes. If you don’t have a designated driver and have had too much fun, there are plenty of places to stay.
White Christmas is playing through Dec. 22. Information, schedules, and tickets are available at www.valleyperformingarts.org.
Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage who writes primarily about labor issues, but also does theater reviews for Must Read Alaska. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.