The Shaw Festival Theatre was packed Saturday for the opening night of White Christmas, directed by Kate Hennig and starring Jeff Irving and Kevin McLachlan and 26 other members of the Shaw ensemble.
Irving and McLachlan play Second World War veterans Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, a song-and-dance duo famously portrayed by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the 1954 movie of the same name.
Those who saw Shaw’s 2021 production of Holiday Inn may recognize a few similarities between the storyline of that one and White Christmas. Both plays were based on Bing Crosby films and revolve around the music of the great Irving Berlin. Both productions feature the song Happy Holiday, and they also both climax at a country inn with the song White Christmas.
But there the similarities end. It’s difficult to say it any other way — White Christmas brings much more Christmas to the stage than did Holiday Inn, and those in attendance at Saturday’s performance would have been hard-pressed to leave the theatre in anything less than a holiday mood.
Irving and McLachlan are perfect in the roles of Wallace and Davis.
The musical opens in Europe on Christmas Eve, 1944. Wallace and Davis entertain the 151st Division with a couple of songs, establishing the chemistry between the two actors in song, dance and dialogue.
The scene then shifts to New York City, where Bob and Phil are appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. They receive a tip from an old soldier friend to check out his sister’s duo act at a nightclub.
The men take their seats there just as Judy and Betty, played by Shaw newcomer Mary Antonini and Alexis Gordon, in her fourth year at Shaw, perform one of the most well-known songs from the musical, Sisters.
After their number, the ladies sit down to share a drink with the men. Phil immediately hits it off with Judy, but Bob and Betty are both extremely awkward and seemingly couldn’t be less interested in each other.
The guys are scheduled to head to Florida for a performance, but Phil pulls a fast one on Bob and instead buys the pair train tickets to Pine Tree, Vermont. That’s where the ladies are booked for a Christmas gig at a country inn, which, unbeknownst to the veterans, just happens to be owned by the soldiers’ former general.
The scene on the train car on the way to Vermont is comic and musical gold. As one passenger after another boards the train wearing winter gear or carrying skis, Irving uses only his facial expressions and body language to show Wallace coming to the slow realization that they are not headed for the sunny climate of the sunshine state.
Every corner of the train car is jam-packed with travellers. When they all break into song for Snow, they use every corner of the locomotive for a rollicking, hilarious and acrobatic dance number.
Act one ends with Irving performing Blue Skies on a baby blue-lit set, with him and the ensemble dressed in suits that perfectly reflect the blue lighting. It’s visually stunning, showcasing the talents of lighting designer Kevin Lamotte, choreographer Allison Plamondon and set an costume designer Judith Bowden.
Bowden in particular has outdone herself for this production. Rarely does a set itself elicit loud exclamations and applause from the audience. But that’s exactly what happened Saturday when the curtain opened for act two to reveal a backdrop of the sheet music for the first number, I Love a Piano, and a platform of piano keys. In fact, a handful of those in the audience actually gave this set a standing ovation.
It set the stage for a show-stopping tap dance performance led by McLachlan and Haynes that led to the loudest ovation of the evening, save for the finale.
Act two is set primarily at the Columbia Inn, owned by General Henry Waverly. The former high-ranking officer, loved greatly by his one-time charges, is played with much bluster and heart by David Alan Anderson.
The singing former soldiers hatch a plot to gather their mates from the 151st Division in Vermont to put on a Christmas show in the barn next to the inn, with the aim of saving the financially-strapped business for the man who was their leader. But a misunderstanding occurs between Bob and Betty, driving a wedge between the two of them just as they are beginning to fall in love.
Comic performances from Jenni Burke as Martha Watson and Drew Plummer as Ezekiel Foster, a man of few words, are standouts during act two. Burke in particular uses her gruff, gravelly voice to add a bit of bluesy grit to the Irving Berlin songs.
And Laura Secord Secondary School student Catherine Dubois, who on Saturday played Susan Waverly, the general’s granddaughter, kept pace with the many seasoned Shaw professionals. She had a chance to stretch out her vocal range on Let Me Sing and I’m Happy, and did not disappoint. Dubois shares the role during the month-long run of White Christmas with Payton Mills.
Of course, just as in the movie, everything all works out in the end. The misunderstanding is resolved, the guys get their girls, they put on a show in the barn and the general comes to a sudden realization about the inn.
And, of course, they all come together, along with the audience, to sing that much-loved chestnut that is the title song of this musical.
It’s a high-energy, upbeat two-and-a-half hours that is sure to get theatre-goers in the mood for the holidays. And one hopes that perhaps in 2024, Shaw artistic director Tim Carroll may see fit to bring White Christmas back for another run.