BWW Review: WHITE CHRISTMAS Delights at The Firehouse Theatre
The weather outside was indeed frightful, a 70 degree day followed by fitful storms, but White Christmas inside the Firehouse Theatre was, exactly as their curtain speech quipped, simply delightful. If you weren't lucky enough to attend opening night, patrons were greeted with a gaggle of young carolers and a food truck toting Beignets and Café Au Lait! A perfect start to a stellar family evening.
For those somehow unfamiliar with this classic tale, Irving Berlin graced us with Paramount Pictures White Christmas in 1954, a decade after the title song was initially released in another classic Holiday Inn. The plot surrounds two talented army buddies and two equally entertaining sisters. Both parties are presented with a cleverly designed meet-cute that sends the gentlemen on the wrong way for a Winter getaway, and the ladies soaring into showbiz.
The four principal characters of Bob Wallace (Jonathan Garcia), Phil Davis (Preston Lee Isham), Betty Haynes (Amanda Hart Bassett), and Judy Haynes (Ally Van Deuren) did an exceptional job of carrying the show, while the tertiary characters and ensemble held up their end with energetic, complimentary performances.
As the leader of the cast, Jonathan Garcia was solid and consistent as Wallace. The scowling Scrooge of the group, he really excels with comedic timing. I was only moderately disappointed in some of his solo numbers where the music direction of John Norine Jr. seemed to underestimate the vocal abilities of Garcia. Amanda Hart Bassett was a refreshing take on Betty Haynes; with curves and a rumbling alto belt beyond her years, she truly captured the old Hollywood style that was originated by Rosemary Clooney in this role.
As the conspiring, comic-relief couple of Phil and Judy, Preston Lee Isham and Ally Van Deuren absolutely stole the show. Van Deuren is one of the truest triple threats that DFW theatre has to offer-she can sing, dance, act and is equally technically skilled in all three genres. Her bubbly take on a crafty Judy Haynes was precious, if not a bit saccharine for this old Grinch. Preston Lee Isham is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors to watch grow into his own in this community. I was relieved, and frankly shocked, to see that he is clearly a trained tapper. "I Love a Piano" between Isham and Van Deuren was by far the cleanest number of the evening (even if the technical skills went over the heads of a few ensemble members) and garnered healthy applause from the audience. Opening night nerves clearly caught Isham as I noted hesitation in a few numbers, but I have a feeling as the production presses forward he will have found his legs.
Several secondary characters shined in the limelight Friday. Kristal Seid does a frenetically funny busy body as Martha Watson, the innkeepers assistant parading as a former Broadway Beauty. Carlos Strudwick has a hysterical stint as Mike Nulty, the overworked, under-appreciated (in his own estimation) big-city director. Even the young Ezekiel Foster played by Braiden Fisher manages to squeeze a few hearty chuckles from the audience.
Perhaps the most heartfelt performances in the company come from Patrick Persons as innkeeper General Henry Waverly and Gigi Johnson as his granddaughter Susan Waverly. Persons and Johnson both manage to evoke their roles with such sincerity and earnest, they are surely the responsible parties for any sentimental tears shed in the audience.
Kyle Christopher West simply succeeded with his cleanly directed rendition of White Christmas. I am of the opinion that many theatres think it is difficult to screw-up a classic musical. With riffs and belts, aerials and effects, so much of the newer fare seems to escalate the level of difficulty in execution. But this simply isn't so. To stay true to a time-honored tale, while keeping it invigorated and audience friendly, is a far more daunting task. You want to appease the minds who have watched this show through the decades while ensnaring the senses of a new audience member-a very delicate balance to achieve.
The most impressive feat of the production was in West's choreography. While there were some technical errors presenting in sickled feet and uncertain side glances, the overall company was crisp. Remaining period appropriate, the choreography was also fresh with each number. Bringing in an outside choreographer, Coppell native Mandy Modic, for the tap routines was an inspired choice that clearly challenged the dancers to ramp up their training.
Perfectly complementing the energetic dance moves was the vibrant and largely well-tailored costuming. The occasional visible undergarments pulled the eye (this I feel is more on the actors to secure and set than the costumer), but the color palette in each scene molded a stunning tableau. Particularly the Ed Sullivan and "Snow" numbers were just visually delightful.
Wendy Rene'e Searcy's set was beautiful, although not quite appropriate for all of the scenes. I certainly appreciated the designer's attention to the sightlines on this stage, a pesky issue that can be exacerbated in smaller spaces. I was a bit disappointed by the direction of closing the grand drape and then revealing with no discernible set changes. I would have preferred less money be spent on the overall backdrop and more attention paid to small scenery changes. The projections cast to change locations in the story were often missed depending on where you were seated in the house.
The only glaring issues of the opening night came from missed sound cues, messy mics, and the musical direction that seemed lax from John Norrine Jr. The band sounded quite full, but there were a few chorus moments that fell flat particularly when actors were filling out harmonies backstage. The strongest of the vocal numbers were consistently helmed by the ladies, specifically the trio of Bassett, Van Deuren, and Seid in "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun" which begs the question: was the number successful due to direction or just the talented ears of these women that shaped the vocal styling?
Barring a few opening night bobbles and missteps, I strongly encourage you to take loved ones to see White Christmas-it is heartfelt, pure, visually pleasing, and hearkens to holiday memories for several generations. Patrons will be delighted by the bright numbers and charming introduction of audience participation! Tickets are very nearly sold out for the remainder of the run, but the box office is taking waiting list spots for all show times: Friday, December 7th @ 8:30, Saturday, December 8th @ 7:30, Sunday, December 9th @ 7:30, Thursday, December 13th @ 7:30, Friday, December 14th @ 7:30, Saturday, December 15th @ 2:30 & 7:30 and Sunday, December 16th @ 2:30.
The Firehouse Theatre is located at 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch, TX 75234. Tickets for WHITE CHRISTMAS range from $13-$25 and can be purchased at www.TheFirehouseTheatre.com.
All photos are courtesy of Pendleton Photography.