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Posted July 15, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Irving Berlin classic offers respite from heat

By Josette Keelor - jkeelor@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- A favorite among Americans for almost 60 years, the musical version of a film starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye makes its Winchester debut as the fourth and final production of the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre at Shenandoah University.

In "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," characters Bob Wallace and Phil Davis team up for the musical within a musical, "Playing Around," which takes the stage in a Vermont inn and includes the young talents of the Haynes Sisters, as the four hope to spread some Christmas cheer to an old friend.

The idea of performing a Christmas-themed show in the middle of the summer has not fazed the cast or crew.

"Why not?" said director Harold Herman. "I go out and it's 90 degrees or 100 degrees," he said.

He believes people will simply be glad to duck into air conditioning and watch a play that makes them think of snow and winter.

"People are yearning for a cold thought," said Jack Rowles, who plays Bob.

Besides, the story is about much more than the holiday season.

"Christmas is when the story is taking place, it's not about Christmas," said Rowles.

The play, he said, is more about the period during and following World War II, the friendship of Bob and Phil, the relationships they form with other characters in the play.

Audience members who know the original story will not be disappointed in the stage production, but they will experience the story anew as they encounter many extended and even new songs written by Irving Berlin but not included in the film.

"There are little changes here and there, little tweaks," said Carl Danielsen, who plays Phil.

"I think this is my seventh [play at Shenandoah]. ... I love it here. I did 'Singing in the Rain' for them 15 years ago," said Danielsen. "I fell in love with this place."

His excitement to perform with Rowles is clear as the two kid around on a morning prior to a rehearsal.

"We've played opposite each other six of the seven times," said Danielsen.

The pair, who play former Army buddies turned successful show biz partners, also look forward to working with Robin Higginbotham and Kelly Morris, who play sister act Judy and Betty Haynes, respectively.

Higginbotham, who also choreographs productions at the university, and Morris, who played Mrs. Lovett in last winter's "Sweeney Todd," offer a formidable pair opposite summer theater veterans Danielsen and Rowles.

"[Morris] was supposedly brilliant," Rowles said of her performance in "Sweeney Todd." "'Perfect' is the word that comes to mind."

Reimagining the roles famously portrayed by Crosby and Kaye is more fun than intimidating.

Rowles sees it more as playing "Bob and Phil, not Bing and Danny."

Danielsen agrees: "It's got a lot of new things ... that won't be compared unfavorably [to the film]."

The fast and furious dance number "Abraham," which Vera-Ellen performed as Judy in the film, has not transferred to the stage version, but others such as "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," "Sisters" and, of course, "White Christmas" will give theater-goers a taste of the songs they know and love.

Other Irving Berlin classics also come to the stage, such as "Happy Holidays" from "Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn," and "Blue Skies," which in the film version is used as only part of a Wallace and Davis performance.

"And they're great production numbers," Herman said of the musical additions. The songs pay tribute to the 1950s era as much as they do to Irving Berlin's classics.

"It's not Rogers and Hammerstein, it is of that classic era, but it's more the popular music of that era," said Danielsen.

The actors stress that the core of the story -- the two love stories between Bob and Betty, and Phil and Judy, are still key to the plot. Other important themes are that of friendship and loyalty.

"There's a story of these two men and they're in World War II together," said Rowles. "And 10 years later these men are brought back together to help their general and they do it in such a touching way ... it's a testament to how our country was [during WWII]."

Other cast members are James Laster as General Waverly and Boo Graham as the general's granddaughter, Susan.

Each year audiences have the opportunity to vote for the following year's four summer productions, and considering that "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" topped the list last year, Herman feels confident that local residents will be dreaming of a white Christmas in July.

"I remember when we did 'Singing in the Rain," it rained every day of the show," Herman said of a summer about 15 years ago.

Maybe this year it will snow, he said.

"Irving Berlin's White Christmas" runs Wednesday through Aug. 1 at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre at Shenandoah University in Winchester. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Matinees are every Saturday and on July 28 at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, visit shenandoahsummermusictheatre.com or call the box office at 665-4569 or 877-580-8029.

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