BWW Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's WHITE CHRISTMAS
Could there be a better way to immerse yourself in all the feeling and sentiment of the holiday season than via a top-flight musical theater production, performed by a young and fresh-faced cast under the direction of a seasoned director, a creative choreographer and an exuberant and experienced music director? Frankly, we can't imagine it - but if you have some suggestions, please let me know. In the meantime, I'll be trumpeting the news that once again Belmont University Musical Theatre has served up that which is necessary to cloak everyone in good tidings of the season.
All this yuletide revelry to which I am alluding comes courtesy of BUMT's latest production: Irving Berlin's White Christmas, the onstage updating of the 1954 film version that features a score of the master musician's finest songs as it tells the story of two song-and-dance men and their female counterparts who join together during one particularly mild winter ski season to help save the bacon of an inspiring leader who's played a significant role in their lives. It's a tuneful, feel-good show that's certain to lift your spirits and, as performed by the BUMT cast, reaffirm your faith that the future of musical theater will be thriving for years to come.
David Shamburger directs his talented cast with focus and commitment, lending the entire production a period-perfect ambience that is nothing short of Christmastime perfection. With terrific choreography by Emily Tello Speck (she's given tremendous support by Lissa DeGuzman and Caleb Marshall in creating the movement for the onstage ensemble) and superb music direction by Jo Lynn Burks (the Broadway veteran conducts her amazing orchestra with energetic aplomb that fills the theater with electricity even before the first note is sung), this production of White Christmas clearly rivals the national touring company of the musical with its polish and confidence.
Colleen Garatoni's gorgeous costume design helps the cast assume their characters' identities with 1950s flair, while Thom Roberts' lighting design illuminates the stage expressively while the story unfolds before you amid Shamburger's well-conceived scenic design.
The musical's lead roles are double-cast - the pool of talent at BUMT is so abundant (and so staggering, truth be told) that it's really the only way to present the show - and on opening night, it was the quartet of Caitlyn Porayko, Lissa DeGuzman (yep, the same one who helped choreograph the show), Kyle O'Connor and Neal Buckley whose energy came flowing over the footlights and into the auditorium to infuse the audience with the kind of scintillating excitement that is only possible through great musical theater. And while I have absolutely no doubts that the leading players of the other cast were just as impressive, it's difficult to imagine any actors succeeding so effortlessly than the aforementioned opening night foursome.
Porayko, the Belmont senior from Brentwood, has impressed us previously as she has grown up on local stages, and in White Christmas she delivers a lovely and spot-on performance as Judy Haynes. Paired with Buckley as Phil Davis (the role originally played on film by Danny Kaye), they are charming as can be in their scenes together, which allow Buckley (who looks enough like Benedict Cumberbatch to perhaps serve as a second career for him) to show off his song-and-dance skills with an easy, self-assured grace, which is particularly noteworthy in their performances of "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" and act two opener "I Love a Piano."
O'Connor, who won great notices earlier this year in Street Theatre Company's Dogfight, is ideally cast as Bob Wallace, the part originally played by Bing Crosby; in fact, O'Connor bears an uncanny resemblance to the crooner. With his leading man good looks and palpable stage presence, O'Connor - who clearly knows how to wear a dinner jacket - rises to the occasion to make his musical numbers all the more impressive, including "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" and the first-act closer "Blue Skies," which would make Berlin proud.
But it's DeGuzman, as Betty Haynes, who delivers the really startling performance that will leave you awestruck. With a perfect mid-Atlantic accent, her hair perfectly styled and wearing Garatoni's glamourous costumes, DeGuzman looks for all the world as if she's stepped out of the pages of a Vogue 1954 number, delivering a performance so true to the time and place that one might think she's hopped some wacky time machine to find herself onstage at Belmont's Massey Performing Arts Center. DeGuzman's portrayal of Betty is wonderfully modulated - there's not even a hint of overacting or stagey artifice to be found in her performance - as she creates a character who is nothing short of perfect for this nostalgic production. When she sings "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me," DeGuzman transports her audience to a mid-20th century New York City nightclub that's evocatively recreated onstage.
The four leading players are given able support by an ensemble filled to the brim with remarkable young talents, while four supporting players very nearly steal the show. Anna Dewey is stunning as Martha Watson, the clarion-voiced major domo of the bucolic Vermont ski lodge that provides the musical's primary setting. Arik Vega plays the mature General Waverly with impressive skill, while Lizzy Hinton plays his granddaughter Susan with gleeful abandon. And, finally, Michael Spencer is terrific as TV producer Ralph Sheldrake.
Wesley Carpenter and Carlina Parker are swell good-time gals Rita and Rhoda and Ben Poss makes the most of his two smaller roles: the avuncular and circumspect Ezekiel Foster and the "snoring man" from the train. And Zachary Waters plays the show-within-a-show's stage manager Mike with a sense of 1950s era whimsical bravado that ensures all eyes are on him as he moves about the stage.
Unfortunately, academic schedules and timelines being what they are - there are always finals at the end of a semester, after all - BUMT's White Christmas was only performed for four performances over the course of one weekend. If it were up to us, however, this show would run throughout the holiday season - from pre-Thanksgiving until post-New Year's Day - dispensing good cheer and heartwarming platitudes all along the way.
- Irving Berlin's White Christmas. Written for the screen by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Book by David Ives and Paul Blake. Directed by David Shamburger. Musical direction by Jo Lynn Burks. Choreography by Emily Tello Speck. Presented by Belmont University Musical Theatre, December 4-6.