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THEATER REVIEW: ‘White Christmas’

Some fine solo voices — not to mention a bounteous amount of holiday cheer — are the best part of the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “White Christmas,” which is finishing up a three-weekend run at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium. This good-hearted adaptation of the classic 1954 film, which starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as a song-and-dance duo 10 years after World War II, is highlighted by a booming-voiced Nick Netzley in the Crosby role crooning out a series of Irving Berlin’s happy tunes, including the famed title number.

There are other aspects of this production, diligently directed by Elizabeth Fiester, that are clunky, however, including the dancing — which is a major drawback for such a dance-heavy show — and some uneven acting. The production’s scenic design (by Devin Gregory) also seems a little spare and uninspired compared to past CMT productions, though the large number of locations that has to be depicted makes this show a challenge for any design team.

“White Christmas” is CMT’s annual community theater production, meaning that the cast is all ages instead of 20 years and younger, which is the case for the company’s other shows throughout the year. As such, it’s a chance to be treated to the voices of Netzley, starring as Bob Wallace, and his on-stage partner, Dan Aldape,  who plays Phil Davis, the other half of the song-and-dance team.

In a prologue set during the last year of World War II, we learn that Bob and Phil have a knack for entertaining the troops. There’s also a tremendous amount of affection among the soldiers for their commanding officer, Gen. Waverly (Tommy Hopkins), whose expertise has saved many of their lives.

Fast forward 10 years to when Bob and Phil’s act is nationally known. In a madcap series of events, the two get caught up with two singing sisters, Betty (Heather Price) and Judy (Hannah Huyck), and Christmas travel plans get changed from a blissful vacation in Florida to a snowy inn in Vermont.

The only problem: Will there be any snow?

“White Christmas” is at heart a “let’s put on a show” musical, as the four main characters get caught up in a scheme to save the failing Vermont inn, which it turns out is owned by the retired Gen. Waverly. Veteran choreographer Kaye Migaki has designed some fun steps for the production, but the execution isn’t always as strong as it should be. My favorite number is the second-act opener “I Love a Piano,” where we get some tap-dancing excitement.

I also liked Fiester’s staging of the bouncy song “Snow,” which offers some dazzle. Amber Creager and Trina Short’s nicely crafted costumes range from perky period to jolly holiday cheer, though a minimalist design (all black with holiday-style sashes) for the dance ensemble in one scene makes them look like Christmas Ninjas, a miss for me.

Netzley has to fight against appearing a little wooden on stage in terms of acting, though it’s a hard task considering the stuffiness of his character. Aldape seems more comfortable on stage and gets in some good laughs.

Price is particularly strong as the more reserved sister, who finds herself in an awkward relationship with the gruff Bob. (Phil and Hannah, played by the nicely voiced Huyck, hit it off faster than you can say “1950s movie convention.”) With her charming voice and sassy comic banter, Price manages to overcome even the most eye-rolling twists of the “it’s all just a big misunderstanding” plot.

Hopkins, a high-school senior, has a challenge playing a grandfatherly figure in terms of age range, and he does an admirable job bridging those years. His character’s granddaughter, played at the second-weekend performance I saw by a very cute Citalli Sanchez, has a sweet stage presence. (She alternates the role with Maya Sosa.)

And then there’s the general’s long-suffering assistant, Sharon Burley — a rousing Ilse in CMT’s “Spring Awakening” — who emerges as a standout. Her vocals are strong and her portrayal well-defined, though she could have used better direction in terms of mining the comic potential of her character.

Madi Spate’s lighting design is nicely done, and the sound was excellent at performance I saw — a testament to Aldape’s sound design. (CMT has struggled with the sound issue over the years.)

As for that “white” Christmas, it should be no surprise when it finally comes. (You can buy a ticket in the “Snow Zone” for each performance.) When it started falling, a wee little girl down front wandered a few steps up the side aisle, eyes wide, head tilted back, hands reaching out. The first time she’s ever seen “snow”? Cutest thing ever.

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