I've been worried about my credibility this entire month. Austin has produced several holiday-themed shows, and all of the ones I've seen (A Christmas Carol, Santaland Diaries, It's a Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street to name a few) have earned my enthusiastic praise. I'm afraid that readers may think I'm a softy who loves everything this town has to offer.
So with my credibility and reputation in mind, I offer my honest opinion of White Christmas, now playing at Zach's Topfer Theatre. This show is the best of the best. It's a fun, dazzling, family-friendly celebration of not only the Holiday season but of the golden age of Broadway and Hollywood as well.
While the stage show may be relatively new (it premiered in 2004), it closely follows the plot of the classic 1954 film of the same name. WWII buddies Bob Wallace and Phil Davis have become Broadway stars, and together with singing sisters Betty and Judy Haynes, they travel to an inn in Vermont to put on a Christmas-themed show. There's just one problem. Due to the lack of snow, the inn is completely vacant. When Bob and Phil discover that their former General is the innkeeper, they decide the show must go on. Like any feel-good musical of the 1950s, love blooms between the sisters and the gentlemen.
The stage version, featuring a witty script by David Ives and Paul Blake and music and lyrics by the iconic Irving Berlin, smartly pays tribute to the film while improving many areas. While many iconic Berlin tunes featured in the film remain intact here, some numbers are removed, such as the incredibly racist "Minstrel Number." Other numbers are expanded, and some characters are further developed, particularly the character of the inn's manager, Martha. While there are plenty of changes and embellishments, fans of the film will not be disappointed and may even consider the stage version superior in some ways to the original.
Thankfully, the strengths of this production do not end with the material. The cast and crew assembled here take the delightful show and run with it. Director and Choreographer Nick Demos has delivered Austin a gift-wrapped homage to Christmas and times gone by. Despite having only a handful of tunes that directly reference the holiday season, this White Christmas jingles all the way with Christmas cheer, something oddly missing from the recent national tour. Demos's direction and choreography also pays tribute to the great film and stage musicals of the 1950s. His choreography in particular is a dazzling and breathtaking salute to the early work of the film version's choreographer, Bob Fosse.
Demos's design team is just as reverential towards the season and to the source material. Jason Amato's lighting design is stunning and whimsical. Cliff Simon's set is absolutely beautiful, and the costumes by Deborah Roberts are a gorgeous nod to the stunning film creations of Edith Head without necessarily recreating them.
But of course, it's the cast that truly brings White Christmas to life. With its abundance of large dance numbers, the show demands plenty of its ensemble, and the cast here rises to the occasion. They work harder than Santa's elves and look fantastic while doing it. The leads are all phenomenal as well. Elizabeth Koepp proves to be a fantastic dancer as Judy Hanes, and Meredith McCall showcases her stellar pipes as Betty. Matt Gibson steps into the Danny Kaye role of Phil with ease. His dancing is impeccable, and his Danny Kaye-esqe smirk is full of charisma and magnetism. As Bob Wallace, the Bing Crosby role, Matthew Redden (last seen as the short-wearing Danny in Zach's Xanadu) probably has the most challenging task, and he handles it wonderfully by creating a unique and refreshingly original character. While he doesn't try to imitate Crosby's iconic sound, Redden's singing is still fantastic and smooth, and it's nice to see the character of Bob dance, something that Crosby really doesn't do in the film. His chemistry with both McCall and Gibson is spot on as well.