As a starting point, let’s just agree: White Christmas is pure, nostalgic corn.
But ever since I was a kid, watching the 1954 Bing Crosby movie with my musical-loving mom, it’s always gotten me right in the feels. The world-wise romantic leads who initially dislike each other? The outwardly gruff but paternal General who’s deeply beloved by his men? The snow that refuses to fall in Vermont until conflicts are resolved, and love and goodness prevail?
Like it’s on the cob, ready to be shucked, people.
But recognizing how a story blatantly pulls on your heartstrings sometimes does little to defuse its impact, which is why I was all too happy to check out the stage musical adaptation of White Christmas at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.
At the show’s start, soldiers Bob Wallace (Michael De Souza) and Phil Davis (Jeremiah Porter) perform for their Army buddies during World War II at Christmastime; then, a few years later, when they’ve become a famous musical comedy duo, philandering Phil tricks workaholic Bob into following a sister act, Judy (Allison Bell) and Betty Haynes (Kailyn Leilani), up to Vermont, where the women are booked to perform during the holidays.
This sounds cozy, but when the four arrive, there’s no snow, so the inn is empty except for the busybody receptionist Martha (Marlene Inman), a girl named Susan (Emersen Davis), and her innkeeper grandfather Henry Waverly (William Scott Davison)—who turns out to also be the general who led Bob and Phil’s division during the war. Upon seeing that the inn is in trouble and that aging, proud Henry is feeling lost, the two men cook up a scheme to help.
Given the classic status of the original movie, one has to ask: What, besides the chance to celebrate widespread affection for that property, can a stage adaptation offer?
Well, for one thing, it can feature a far more diversified cast of performers, as Encore’s production does, thus making the show feel simultaneously classic and modern. And it’s hard to beat a good old-fashioned live production number, with tons of tapping—looking at you, “Blue Skies”—happening just feet away from where you sit.
Indeed, Anna Dreslinski, who directed and choreographed Encore’s Christmas, makes the show’s biggest numbers an absolute joy to watch, and the most hardcore fans of the film—ahem—will recognize Dreslinski’s faithful translation in numbers like Betty’s dramatic torch song “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me.”
But of course, execution is also key, and the Encore’s talented ensemble more than delivers, looking and sounding sharp while making the steps look deceptively easy. Both “Blue Skies” and “I Love a Piano” are all-hands-on-deck knockouts.
And regarding individual performances, both Haynes sisters, Bell and Leilani, nail the show’s vocals and comedy, while Inman also shines brightly in her scene-stealing supporting role.
Music director Frank Pitts’ orchestra sounds great, and Sarah Tanner’s set design is both efficient and flexible, allowing for quick scene changes to keep the show’s pace brisk. (The show runs two-and-a-half hours, with one intermission.) Lighting designer Justin Gibson, meanwhile, gives the production its warm, cozy glow.
To fully and visually transport audiences to this postwar moment, costume designer Marilee Dechart had to create tons of era-appropriate clothes not just for White Christmas‘ various characters, but also for the revue they’re rehearsing at the general’s inn—no small feat. Similarly, props designer Anne Donevan had to ensure that all the items appearing on stage stayed consistent with the time, and sound designer Chris Goosman provided pitch-perfect sound cues while also helping Encore’s cast to sound their best. (At Saturday night’s performance, there were one or two brief mic problems, but I suspect these were flukes rather than consistent issues.)
Of course, as in the film, the show’s lead actors encourage the crowd to sing the title song along with them at the show’s end. I joined in—and upon hearing a theater full of people singing together, performers and audience, I choked up. Maybe it’s because the world’s conflicts have me feeling extra-vulnerable just now; maybe it’s because singing with others is a joy I rarely experience these days; or maybe it’s because the song (and movie) always make me think of my mom, gone 15 years now. But whatever the reason, this is the kind of visceral, emotional experience that theater, at its best moments, can provide.
What can I say? Sometimes, corn just hits the spot.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
“White Christmas” runs at the Encore Musical Theatre Company, 7714 Ann Arbor Street, Dexter, through December 17. Visit theencoretheatre.org for tickets, times, and more information.