Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

Syracuse Stage

December, 2012


“I have often puzzled about what “sugarplums” were, but I think that the musical White Christmas, a combined production by Syracuse Stage and the Syracuse University Drama Department, has given me a pretty good idea.  White Christmas is a bright show filled with music, laughter, and skilled performances, plus a multitude of beautiful costumes and attractive settings.  But above all, as directed by Paul Barnes, and performed by a secure, talented cast, it has a feeling of relaxed connection with the audience.  In short, it’s a treat for eyes, ears, and psyches.

“Probably Irving Berlin’s music has a lot to do with that.  In a very meaningful way, in White Christmas Berlin’s songs become deeply felt dramatic utterances, and they help create character and situation.  But Berlin had a wizardry in blending words and music, and in addition to being beautifully performed – whether in quiet moments or big production numbers – the songs are intriguing in themselves.

“David Wanstreet’s choreography gives the dance numbers, tap or otherwise, a feeling of lightness and relaxation.”

    Neil Novelli

    Syracuse Post-Standard

“If you’re hoping for a white Christmas this year, you don’t have to wait till December 25.  Syracuse Stage’s production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas rings in the season with holiday merriment to make the season bright.

“Syracuse Stage’s production of the classic brings holiday cheer for all with dazzling choreography, fun choruses, and a talented 30-member cast.  Director Paul Barnes, who also directed Stage’s The Miracle Worker in 2011, crafted a wonderfully delightful holiday production for the second production of Stage’s 40th anniversary season.

“Aside from the Christmas carols, tap dancing numbers and comedic overtures, what really makes this show work is its genuine relationships and cogent portrayals of ambition, love and determination.

“. . . Barnes did a fantastic job directing this classic piece.  With each scene, the stage was decked with viscerally enchanting scenery, and the 30-member cast, 12-piece ensemble gifted a charming and absolutely enjoyable production of White Christmas.”

    Christina Riley

    Greenroom Reviews

“With a gorgeous score by one of the great American song writers, Irving Berlin, this family friendly, old style musical is highly enjoyable and technically perfect, even if it occasionally suffers from lack of plot and story.

“Fluidly directed by Paul Barnes with fantastic choreography by David Wanstreet, White Christmas has a spectacular design team.  Special notice should be made of costume designer Susan Branch Towne, whose sharp and original eye and flawless color blending do not negate her authenticity to the time period of the musical.

“Treat yourself to something special this holiday season and see White Christmas at Syracuse Stage.”

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is exactly what it should be: a sensational holiday feel-good experience.  One that worships warm reds and greens, fervent Christmas trees, musings of snow and the cozy thoughts of sipping ‘hot cocoa.’

“For Syracuse Stage, the classic 1954 film turned Broadway musical marks its biggest production to date.  With over 200 costumes, 30 cast members and a 12-piece orchestra, this show is truly decked out with cheery, seasonal pizzazz.  Directed by Paul Barnes and choreographed by David Wanstreet, this production doesn’t miss a detail when transporting the audience back to 1954, small town Vermont.

“The story line is commonplace, and the romances seem whimsical.  But that’s not really the point of this musical.  The highlight tends to come from the fuzzy feelings that the Christmas songs induce; wrap it up with brilliant voices and sensational dancing, and the show is quite entertaining.

“Syracuse Stage’s rendition of the beloved holiday classic is vibrant and nostalgic.  It’s the perfect Christmas card for the holiday season.  Each scene is glowing, and the passion radiating off the ensemble is tangible.

“What really makes this show pop with holiday glam goes beyond the principles.  Scenic designer William Bloodgood constructed multiple sets that reflected the era, the holiday and the feeling of the season.  With warmness at the Columbia Inn and seediness at Jimmy’s club, the set is admirable and reminiscent of Christmastime.

“The costumes are a dazzling complement to the colorful set.  Costume designer Susan Branch Towne performed a miracle: whipping up 200 period, stylish and vivid costumes.  Each costume somehow echoed the 50s show business, yet reserved nature and grabbed a simple, seasonal sparkle. 

“Perhaps the best part of this rendition of White Christmas is the show-stopping dance numbers.  The ensemble, students from Syracuse University, was incredible.  The tap, ballroom, and jazz numbers were crisp and together and an ideal gem of the show.  The company brought dynamic spirit to the production and the marvelous tap numbers really stole the show.”

    Central New York Broadway World


What I learned. . .

It’s always great to get a second chance to tackle a play as large and complex as the David Ives/Paul Blake stage adaptation of the classic holiday film, White ChristmasHaving had an immensely fun and satisfying experience with the piece in December, 2010 at Pioneer Theatre Company, I was happy to accept Tim Bond’s offer to direct White Christmas at Syracuse Stage in 2012, but also wondered if I’d fall into the trap of trying to replicate what we did the first time around. That’s not actually a trap: we should always want to equal if not actually exceed our prior experiences working on a particular script. But I quickly re-learned that you need to be ready to grow the new production from the ground up and to not punish the new team for not being the original team with whom you worked. As it turned out, no worries: this White Christmas maintained its essence, adapted to entirely new production parameters, and turned out to be as satisfying and fun as the first.

The differences between the two were many. Pioneer’s proscenium house is equipped with a fly gallery and substantial wing space that can accommodate rolling sets and tracking set pieces. Syracuse Stage’s considerably smaller house was built with a 1970’s-era dedication to unit sets – and not really imagined as a house for large-scale musicals. Whereas Pioneer had vast space off stage left to which entire sets could be moved and stored when they weren’t being used, Syracuse Stage had 2 – 3 feet of space off stage left, and only slightly more off stage right. Upstage cross over space was limited as well, and its availability was often determined by whether or not the cyc and certain painted drops were being used in particular scenes.

Ultimately this required that I carefully plot entrances and exits so that traffic patterns were as simple as possible and so that the actors’ and the back stage crew’s work did not become even more challenging. With 31 cast members, over 900 separate costume pieces, at least 8 completely separate scenic locales (some of which are only used once; several of which must accommodate large scale production numbers), White Christmas is a logistical challenge even under the most spacious of circumstances. Clever design solutions, ingenious work by the Stage’s staff, and plenty of forethought about traffic patterns paid off: together we triumphed.

Traffic aside, at the heart of the play are the several love stories that make White Christmas a joy on which to work. The love of a platoon of enlisted men for the General who protected and cared for them on the battlefield; the love of Betty and Bob, Judy and Phil, General Waverly and Martha, Martha and Susan, Susan and her grandfather, Ezekiel Foster and Mike Nulty, and perhaps more than any other, the love affair with show business that’s so clearly reflected in the way in which theatrical magic touches and transforms everyone’s lives throughout story.

White Christmas is at heart a love letter to show biz and I think that love story begins and ends with the kids in the chorus. In the case of the Syracuse Stage production, we had literal kids in the chorus: 20-some talented, hard-working, and fun students from the BFA acting programs at Syracuse University. The zest, humor, discipline, and downright skill they brought to their ensemble roles was infectious and inspiring. Together with David Wanstreet, their teacher-choreographer, and Chris Drobny (musical director ), they were, indeed, the backbone of the production.

Once again I lucked out. As with the PTC production, I had an excellent team of collaborators: David, Chris, and designers Bill Bloodgood, Susan Branch Towne, and Lonnie Alcaraz; a terrific, accomplished group of principal actors – plus the truly fine and deeply committed Syracuse Stage staff who worked tirelessly to bring White Christmas to life. I’d be happy to play traffic cop (and much, much more) with these folk any time of the year, no matter the holiday or the season.