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BWW Review: WHITE CHRISTMAS

If ever a show gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling of sitting round a cozy fireplace during the holidays, it's Irving Berlin's WHITE CHRISTMAS, live on stage through December 20 at Haddonfield Plays and Players. Frank Sinatra always thanked his writers for making his songs what they were and surely the beauty, genius and quiet poignancy of Berlin's lyrics are what make the show a beloved and enduring classic. Produced by Dave Stavetski and directed by Darryl Thompson, Jr. and DJ Hedgepath with musical direction by Brian Bacon, the HP&P production team has managed to take us to that little inn in Vermont for a good, old-fashioned Christmas where the hearts of a pair of song and dance acts post-World War II drift apart and come together as they dream longingly of a "white Christmas."

The story is simple and heartwarming. Beginning in 1944 on Christmas Eve, two U.S. Army soldiers, Bob Wallace (Taylor Brody) and Phil Davis (CJ Kish), both entertainers, perform for their division, but learn that their beloved commanding officer, Major General Thomas F. Waverly (Pat DeFusco), is being relieved of his command. They give him a rousing sendoff. Ten years later with the war over, when Bob and Phil have hit the big time, they learn of a sister act, Judy and Betty Haynes (Ashley Griffiths and Elizabeth Deal, respectively) that might be a good addition to their own show. The foursome wind up heading to the Columbia Inn in Vermont which, as fate has it, is run by their former commanding officer, General Waverly. There's one problem: no snow, so no customers. To help the lodge (and the General) succeed, Bob and Phil decide to put on a show with a few tricks up their sleeves. Along the way are romantic misunderstandings, toe-tapping numbers and songs so fantastic and gorgeous, one can't help singing along.

WHITE CHRISTMAS is the perfect antidote to put one in the spirit and spell of the season. With spare sets, but a lot of imaginative lighting and props and a superior sound system, HP&P successfully recreates everything from the Ed Sullivan Show to a romantic New England ski lodge. As the principals, the beautiful Ashley Griffiths is radiant and graceful in the Vera Allen role, reminiscent of a young Tina Louise, while her "beau" Phil (Kish) has the right degree of raffish tomfoolery to evoke the playboy soldier made memorable in the film by Danny Kaye. Kish also bears a striking resemblance to Jack Nicholson. Rounding out the leads, appealing Taylor Brody, playing it straight like his film counterpart Bing Crosby, kicks things into gear with a beautiful rendition of "Blue Skies" and Elizabeth Deal, whose film counterpart was the great Rosemary Clooney, gives her Betty emotional depth and elegance, aptly evoked in exquisite numbers like "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me." The singers achieve lovely harmonies in their duets and one of the highlights is the "Sisters" number by the two women. (The "Sisters" spoof by the men, so uproarious in the film, is recreated here, but while fun, is more understated, highlighting the different personalities of the men.)

The ensemble, including an adorable Amanda Kipila as the General's granddaughter Susan, clearly put their hearts and souls into the production and the full scale tap numbers had the audience whistling and cheering, keeping us smiling along with the cast. Mallory Beach, who also functions as an Assistant Choreographer, has a great and vivid energy and Audrey DiEnno, who plays a saucy chorine Rita, brings down the house with her solo routine. Other dynamic numbers include "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" and the eponymous and magical "White Christmas," which is almost like the shining star atop the Christmas tree.

Two standouts in the delightful cast are Dana Kares as Martha Watson and Pat DeFusco as General "The Old Man" Waverly. Kares not only can sing, but also has the dry, sardonic wit and delivery of Bebe Neuwirth or the late, great Madeline Kahn. Her adorable chemistry with the prickly general is the strongest of the pairings in the show and their moments onstage, individually or together, are high points that keep things moving like the sorely-missed character actors of the 40's. A seasoned actor with several films and more than 30 commercials under his belt, DeFusco has the same command of the role as his character does of his company. When he addresses his room full of soldiers (the audience), we believe him and the rousing finale in the General's honor is very moving.

As an added delight there is a face familiar to television viewers in the cast - "Action News" anchorman Rick Williams who appears along with his lovely wife Jocelyn. Williams and his wife are actually active in community theater, along with their son, but this is their first appearance with Haddonfield Plays and Players. They are charming together.

All in all, WHITE CHRISTMAS is a wonderful Yuletide treat for the whole family which spreads its feel-good warmth and cheer to the audience. It's like having a warm cup of cocoa on a snowy night. WHITE CHRISTMAS plays at Haddonfield Plays and Players, 957 East Atlantic Avenue, Haddonfield, NJ on Wednesday, December 16 at 8:00pm, Friday, December 18 at 8:00pm, Saturday, December 19 at 2:00pm (Veterans Appreciation Performance*), Saturday, December 19 at 8:00pm and Sunday, December 20 at 2:00pm.


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