by Aaron Sarlo
Opening night of The Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of “White Christmas” happened to coincide with my wife’s birthday this year. When she first saw the Rep’s schedule, she picked “White Christmas” as the one Rep production she would not miss, and so, very early this fall, we planned to celebrate her birthday watching this tremendous and heartwarming production. Afterwards, as we drove home in the balmy night, we reflected on how sweet and endearing the play remained after all these years, and we talked about the actors and their performances, and our favorite parts of the play, the way that people do, and I realized that this was one of those special birthdays with a friend that I will be looking back upon in fondness until my premature death at age 130. This was, in no small part, due to The Rep’s lavish rendition of Irving Berlin’s classic.
The first thing we saw when entering the theater was a projected image on the velvet stage curtains that read “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” with tiny cartoon sprigs of holly framing the sides. It was a nice touch, and put us instantly in the holiday spirit, which, considering the unseasonably warm weather was a bit of a feat. But the night’s unseasonably warm weather, in fact, mirrored part of the plot of the play (nicely done, Rep folks). Soon, the overture began, the lights dimmed, and the play commenced, instantly dropping us into the final moments of a play-within-the-play stage show for the troops of the 151st Division, stationed somewhere in Europe. We, the audience, played the part of the 151st Division for the opening (and closing) scenes. Bob Wallace (Shane Donovan) and Phil Davis (Case Dillard) perform a vaudevillian (read: intentionally corny) song and dance number for us, and then a very stoic General Waverly (Charles Karel, in a great, patronly performance) gives us a farewell speech. It was a tidy quasi-prologue that neatly outlined the principle characters and set the story into motion.
The story truly begins shortly thereafter as Bob and Phil have become post-war singing and dancing stars. They perform regularly on The Ed Sullivan show, and are beloved across the nation. While setting off for a holiday trip to Miami, the two instead take a detour to a picturesque Vermont town (by way of Phil’s unchecked libido) with two bright-faced and talented showgals, Betty and Judy Haynes (Jennifer Sheehan and Sarah Agar, respectively) who are booked to perform a Christmas show at a sleepy little inn. One couple, Phil and Judy, hit it off immediately. The other couple, however — the emotionally staid Bob and Betty — keep their distance from one another, only to eventually begin to fall in love. But you probably know the story. Based on my informal research, almost everybody has seen “White Christmas” at least once, but for the two or three Arkansans who haven’t yet, I won’t reveal the outcome.
It is interesting to see the choices a director makes when tailoring a story for particular means, and it was interesting in kind to watch the Rep’s Nicole Capri’s excellent direction bring the storyline of “White Christmas to inhabit The Rep’s stage. While some of the initial bonding between Bob and Phil is omitted, and other parts of the plot truncated, the overall story — and its characters’ friendships — does not suffer. In fact, I felt that the slight deviations from the original film (which is The Standard in “White Christmas” productions) that did occur were appropriate and timely.
As the two leads, Donovan and Dillard played off each other perfectly, and my wife and I could not decide which of the two performances we liked better. Donovan’s Bob Wallace had the familiar easy charm and light-heart-in-a-cynical-world feel inherent to the character. It was easy to identify with his take on stilted love, and Donovan’s Bob was easily the centerpiece of the story. That said, Dillard’s Phil Davis was immensely entertaining, and danced like his life depended on it. Both actors are amazing talents, and their leading ladies were beautiful and pitch perfect. But the character my wife and I kept coming back to in our discussion after the show (during our drive to the eggnog store) was Martha Watson (Ann-Ngaire Martin). She was just so much fun to watch.
Cleverly, many of Martha’s lines are contemporary in intent, which affords her a slight narrative edge over the other characters. This is sweetly borne out in the character of Susie Waverly (Maddie Lentz, Ella Moody), the general’s granddaughter, who, of all the characters swirling around her, chooses Martha to emulate, performing a terrific reprise of Martha’s own “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” ultimately scoring the end of the night’s biggest round of applause.
Perhaps the best part of the production, however, was the singing and dancing, which was phenomenal. I’ve been a fan of Berlin’s music for years, and it was splendid to hear it so well-represented by this great cast.