Merry and Bright: A Review of the Duluth Playhouse’s Production of White Christmas

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I suffer from almost pathological nostalgia, a condition that only becomes more acute during the holiday season. Out come boxes of familiar, musty Christmas ornaments that probably should be replaced and mountains of Scandinavian desserts from a tradition now many generations removed from my own.  And the annual viewing (okay, multiple viewings) of favorite holiday films: Holiday Inn, It’s a Wonderful Life, Christmas in Connecticut, and, of course, White Christmas.

Given the inviolability of established holiday traditions, it was with a bit of trepidation that I attended a preview show of White Christmas at the Duluth Playhouse. Happily, the production did not disappoint, sailing along with plenty of glitz and good cheer. The set, framed like a vintage Christmas card, the familiar Irving Berlin tunes, vibrant mid-century costumes all invoked an amber-tinted yesteryear.

Drew Autio (Bob Wallace) and Jen Bergum (Betty Haynes) excelled at imbuing their characters with a world-weary cynicism that masks a shared kindheartedness, while Tom Rusterholz (Phil Davis) and Teran Ferguson (Judy Haynes) seemed to relish their roles as screwball schemers. Rusterholz’s performance was marked by jaw-dropping dance moves and adroit physical comedy. Ferguson’s line delivery seemed a bit stilted at times, but her voice was particularly well-suited to Berlin’s jazzy standards. 

The supporting cast and ensemble were similarly strong. Alex Schmuck’s (Sheldrake) rapid-fire delivery, reminiscent of 1940’s comedies, was very period-appropriate, and Miriam Alanen and Ashley Matheson were delightfully giddy as two showgirls vying for Phil’s attention. Michael Walke’s General Waverly was sympathetic, but never maudlin. The expanded roles of General Waverly’s granddaughter, Susan (played by Bailey Stender ) and “concierge,” Martha (played by Maude Dornfeld) were a welcome addition to the stage musical: both stole the show with hammy renditions of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (Dornfeld’s uncanny and hilarious Ethel Merman impression was particularly fun).

Those familiar with the film will notice some fairly significant changes to the plot in the stage version of White Christmas that work with varying degrees of success. While the exclusion of numbers like “Choreography” and the minstrel show medley make sense, the resolution of General Waverly’s desire to return to active duty seemed rather unnecessary, as did the shift in the nature of Betty and Bob’s misunderstanding.

Still, the majority of these changes are welcome, moving the plot along while also letting the stage musical function as more of an Irving Berlin musical revue. The show incorporates new numbers from the Irving Berlin songbook, including “I Love a Piano,” “How Deep is the Ocean?” and, appropriately, “Happy Holiday” while also showcasing songs that are included very briefly in the film version (“Blue Skies” and “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”). The stage version also re-envisions (and re-invigorates) other numbers from the film, especially “Snow” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”, while some of the songs function much as they do in the original (“Sisters”, complete with side-splitting reprise). The title song gets short shrift in the finale, occurring rather abruptly, but one can’t help but feel a sense of holiday cheer as the audience is invited to join in. Ultimately, it is that feeling of something familiar, but also new, that makes this show a treat.

Hail of Bullets:

  • What: White Christmas
  • Where: Duluth Playhouse
  • When: Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Run ends Dec. 19.

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