REVIEW: ‘White Christmas’ is Divine Holiday Showstopper at Anderson University

Rebecca Kelley and Bailey Tyler in "White Christmas." Photo courtesy of Anderson University.
Rebecca Kelley and Bailey Tyler in “White Christmas.” Photo courtesy of Anderson University.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

It may be time to return that black witch’s hat for a Santa stocking. It’s already snowing in Anderson as the South Carolina School of the Arts skips Halloween and Thanksgiving forthright with the musical “White Christmas.”

Based on the seminal holiday film with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, “White Christmas” may seem like an odd programming choice for an October production, but as Director Deborah White McEniry noted in her opening night introduction, this project was three years in the making.  And besides stores like TJ Maxx and Dillard’s have long been flush with holiday merchandise.

“White Christmas” is a post-war, romantic, patriotic song-and-dance extravaganza rolled into a Christmas holiday delectable treat. Sentimental in its own day, this AU production with Irving Berlin’s live magnificent score is a grandiose, eye-popping spectacle with live music and  with one gorgeous dance number after another and belies the imagination that this is a college production.

Old army buddies-turned-entertainers Bob Wallace (David Latorre) and Phil Davis (Sawyer Pollock) and their double-dates, the Sister act Betty (Bailey Tyler) and Judy (Rebecca Kelley), stage a benefit for the retired General Henry Waverly (a matured Isaac Beckner) who is about to lose his inn in Pine Tree, Vermont when a heatwave melts the winter wonderland tourism business.

This show is a nostalgic ode to the days when musicals were so common that the players would use any excuse to fall in love, break into song and wear exquisite costumes like those designed by Jessica Snyder and feature colors from the film, period silhouettes, and painstaking artistry. It took a team of several dozen students to make them.

Here we are treated to the swing and ballroom choreography by Terri West Poore and Lauren ‑ a lively ensemble tapping complex routines in “Let Yourself Go” and in “I Love a Piano,” and dazzling blue-feathered dancers in “Blue Skies.”

And the vocal blending directed by Howard Kim is superb: the fellows in the two Christmas standards in this musical, “Happy Holiday” and “White Christmas”; Pollock and Kelley in “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing”; Latorre and Tyler in the jazzy ballad “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”; and the sisters and the amusing Maggie McNeil (as the inn’s love-struck manager Martha) in an Andrew Sistersesque three-part “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun.”

But the finest duet of the evening is Latorre and Pollock when they hilariously stand in for the gals in the “Sisters” Reprise. BRAVO!

Latorre, with his smooth Jim Nabors tenor voice and Pollock, with boy-next-door charm are convincing as the army pals, one a shy holdout and the latter a magnanimous ladies man.

Tyler (with a slight resemblance to Amy Adams) is marvelous with astute comedic timing and Haynes is stunning in her costumes and platinum blonde Lady Gaga wig (in her classy gigs with Tony Bennett) and has legs that were made for dancing.

Greyson Wade (this well-heeled actor is an excellent song-and-dance man) makes his mark as Ralph Sheldrake, another army comrade and talent booker for “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Also noteworthy is the poignant portrayal by Bethany Mansfield as the General’s granddaughter Susan, and the perky Laura Beth Cannon and Alexis Harder as Rita and Rhoda, two young flirty gals who are always a constant reminder of Phil’s single days.

The other key players are Assistant Director Jonathan “Thor” Raines, Set Designers Dalton Cole and Ann Cadaret, Lighting Designer Cara Wood, and Stage Manager Jenna Thiel.

I actually saw this musical in its 2004 initial run in San Francisco and had forgotten how lovely the production values are in this show. And while I wasn’t completely sold on embracing the holiday joy just quite yet, this terrific show does have undeniable sweet potato pie wholesomeness about it. It honors our veterans and American values, love and family, and the indelible bonding that Christmas spirit beholds.

Some of the acting wasn’t as tightly conveyed as the musical numbers on opening night and there were some technical hesitations, but that was probably just the jitters.

 “White Christmas” continues through Saturday, March 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Henderson Auditorium, Anderson University. Call (864) 231-2080 or visit http://www.schoolofthearts.com.

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