"Irving Berlin's White Christmas" ensemble Friday's performance of Irving Berlin's White Christmas at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse was so joyous, so committed to giving audiences a good time, that it easily transcended its opening-night technical gaffes. Hell, the sound system could've exploded and the set could've come crashing down - knock knock knock - and the cast still would have sold the show.

In order to suggest what a feat this actually was - and to prove I'm not blind to the evening's snafus - here's a sampling of what went wrong: An early scene change found a large set piece momentarily trapped behind a stage-right curtain, causing an uncomfortable delay. Preparations for subsequent scene changes - with sets being rolled into place - were distractingly audible from backstage. One prominent actor's body mic hissed continually, while the frighteningly loud blare from an on-stage telephone switchboard made the audience jump. Light cues were occasionally tardy. A last-minute change on the CD accompaniment caused the performers, during the finale, to be briefly, noticeably off with the music (which wouldn't have been bothersome if they weren't singing "White Christmas"). Oh, yeah: And it didn't snow.

And in the end, none of that mattered.

It might have if director/choreographer Ann Nieman and her ensemble weren't in such fine form. But Circa '21's White Christmas is too strong to be waylaid by technical hiccups. The stage musical itself - giving audiences what they adore about the 1954 film without appearing completely beholden to it - is a well-constructed take on the beloved movie, and with those glorious Irving Berlin songs performed by a cast that appears to be having the time of their lives, this production is a constant delight. You can feel the audience really wanting it to be good, and happily, it's very good.

So, too, are the leading performers. As song-and-dance men Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, Jesse Lawder and Mishi Schueller are marvelously assured and entertaining; you don't waste any time reminiscing about Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Lawder, a smooth vocalist with laid-back confidence, underplays with deft wit, and Schueller is a divinely energetic foil - both are completely convincing as lifelong friends and huge talents. Darcie Bender, a terrific singer with a radiant presence, makes her Betty Haynes a much funnier role than Rosemary Clooney's interpretation suggested, and the sly, effervescent Erin Churchill (nee Dickerson) would steal scenes if the actress' generosity didn't make everyone surrounding her look great, too. And in this White Christmas, that's a lot of greatness.

What Nieman understands better than many directors - and what she has demonstrated in such Circa '21 productions as Grease and Annie - is that musicals always benefit from being populated with secondary, even throwaway, characters who are as vibrant as the leads; these inspired turns, arriving at unpredictable times, add welcome comedic and emotional texture.

Among the 14 performers supporting the leading quartet, enormous fun is provided by Paris Bradstreet, with her brassy show-biz savvy, and Andrea Moore and Jenna Kantor as a pair of sweetly brazen flirts; Kantor's saucy wiggle-walk alone is a source of high amusement. Adam Michael Lewis is hysterical as the frazzled, occasionally apoplectic stage manager, and Gary Baker oftentimes has only one word in which to score a laugh - a matter-of-fact "Yep" - and always nails it. (Bret Churchill, meanwhile, earns a big laugh through a perfectly-timed snore.) Meanwhile, eighth-grader Hannah Solchenberger (alternating White Christmas performances with fifth-grader Ashley Lewis) is a spunky belter with snappy timing; Act II gives her a solo reprise of "Let Me Sing & I'm Happy," and we were all pretty happy, too.

(A word must also be said for Brad Hauskins, who, on opening night, stepped in for hospitalized performer Tom Walljasper, and gave a focused, energetic performance on six hours' notice. This is not the first time Hauskins has performed such a service for Circa '21, nor the fifth; over the years, he's performed similar rescues on more than a dozen occasions. There ought to be an award for people like that.)

White Christmas gives its gifted performers numerous opportunities to shine. And what opportunities! Borrowing only sporadically from the film, Nieman's choreography is sublime - "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," "Blue Skies," and the gloriously lively tap routine "I Love a Piano" standing as most memorable - and the harmonies, under the musical direction of Mary Ehleinger, are gorgeous, particularly during the train-bound "Snow" number and the finale, with or without a tracking mishap.

And in case you're now thinking that opening night was a technical nightmare, it wasn't; the sets and lighting - especially when Bob and Betty sat under a haunting amber glow while Phil and Judy performed a silhouetted pas de deux behind them - were continually impressive, and "impressive" doesn't begin to do justice to the more than 100 costumes created by designer Greg Hiatt. A dazzling blend of the expected (the climactic, well-remembered red-and-white ensembles) and the inspired (Moore's and Kantor's hilarious Christmas-tree outfits), Hiatt's contributions were beyond stunning - a fabulous example of spectacle working in tandem with the presentation rather than overshadowing it. Irving Berlin's White Christmas could have worked just fine if Circa '21 presented it on a bare stage with the actors dressed in all black. I'm thrilled they didn't have to.



Considering my close ties to Circa '21's performing wait staff, The Bootleggers, I avoid reviewing their pre-show entertainments. But in memory of the theatre's longtime performer/musician Linda Brinkerhoff - who arranged numerous pre-shows over the years and passed away this autumn - the Bootleggers are currently presenting one of Linda's most exceptional arrangements, which, in a speedy 15 minutes, dovetails snippets of dozens of holiday favorites within the context of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." It's an extraordinary accomplishment, and the Bootleggers' rendition is a beautiful, moving, and funny tribute to a wonderful lady. Linda would be proud, guys. And she'd be proud of White Christmas, too.


For tickets, call (309) 786-7733 extension 2.

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