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Posted July 24, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Review: Holiday cheer comes early at theater

By John Horan Jr. --

WINCHESTER -- Dreaming of a white Christmas? The Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre provides a temporary fix, or at least a reasonable facsimile, with its production of "White Christmas."

The lavish musical, with a score by Irving Berlin, exudes holiday cheer. In addition to the title tune, which the audience joins in on the second time around, the final scene boasts luxuriant Christmas decorations and, for good measure, simulated snow that wafts down on part of the audience.

"White Christmas," which is based on the 1954 film of the same name, evokes that simpler, sunnier era after World War II. Two ex-GIs who have made it big as a song-and-dance team pursue two sisters to join their act -- romance, of course, ensues -- and in the "let's-put-on-a-show" spirit of movie musicals of that period connive to rescue a financially rickety inn, which just happens to be run by their former, much-revered general.

If the plot is strained, its shortcomings are transcended by Berlin's music, including some recycled standards, the good-natured characters and especially the splendid singing and dynamic dancing of the cast, directed by Harold Herman.

The two couples at the center of the show are exemplary, reveling in Matthew Gose's dynamic choreography and Berlin's tuneful score and conveying a likable credibility as actors.

Jack Rowles and Carl Danielsen brim with the talent and charisma of the first-rate entertainers that inhabited now-bygone TV variety shows. Robin Higginbotham and Kelly Morris are equally convincing as the sisters looking for their big break.

Danielsen and Higginbotham connect as the more exuberant couple, a quality best conveyed by their "I Love a Piano," which includes a tap dancing competition of sorts that climaxes with an ensemble's joining them and clattering away in a riot of kinetic energy.

Rowles and Morris are persuasive as the more standoffish pair who bond over Rowles' soulful rendition of "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep."

The steely mien James Laster displays as the general fades noticeably into that of the harried innkeeper. Sarah Philabaum is his good-hearted, crafty -- and big-voiced -- assistant and Boo Graham the spunky youngster. As the inn's handyman, Todd Berkich makes the most of his mostly monosyllabic role.

Wm. McConnell Bozman's stellar scenery includes sets that wheel into and out of view and a grand, oversized background for "I Love a Piano." Will Ingham's lighting is equally inventive, especially the "Blue Skies" that illustrate that song. Jennifer Flitton Adams provides a wealth of handsome costumes.

"White Christmas" continues at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre through Aug. 1. The box office phone number is 665-4569.

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