Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia is offering what has become a seasonal favorite — Irving Berlin's "White Christmas, The Musical" in evening and matinee performances through Jan. 8.
Not just another holiday show, "White Christmas, The Musical" is also a celebration of the American popular song as defined by its prolific composer Irving Berlin. The show gives us with such favorites as "Blue Skies," "I Love a Piano," and "How Deep is the Ocean," along with introducing lesser-known Berlin tunes.
Based on the 1954 film starring Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Danny Kaye, the stage musical originated in San Francisco in 2004 and has played limited runs on Broadway and in many U.S. and Canadian venues.
As in the movie, the plot centers on successful song-and-dance team Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, who served in World War II under tough Gen. Henry Waverly. Wallace and Davis learn that Waverly, now retired, has bought a Vermont inn that is attracting few guests — especially during a winter heat wave.
To attract visitors to the general's inn, Wallace and Davis decide to put on a show, and in the process get to know Betty and Judy Haynes, whom Waverly has hired to do their nightclub sister act at his inn.
Toby's bright production is co-directed by David James and Lawrence Munsey, who treat the script with warm nostalgia and deliver a series of fabulous musical numbers. These two terrific song-and-dance men also bring their bright talent to the starring roles of Bob Wallace (Munsey) and Phil Davis (James).
Munsey plays well off James' portrayal of Phil Davis and also creates distinctive chemistry with Janine Gulisano-Sunday's Betty Haynes that qualifies him as a romantic leading man who touches hearts with his soulful "How Deep is the Ocean" to create a major musical highlight of the evening.
As Phil Davis, James is equally strong and characteristically making his every skilled dance move look easy with added pizazz in his heartfelt delivery of treasured favorites like "White Christmas" and "I Love a Piano" that prove why James has twice won the Helen Hayes Award.
Choreographer Paula Lynn creates a succession of fabulous dances — some exciting, energetic tap dancing numbers reminiscent of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood musicals, others evoking the romance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Adding to this production's overall glamour are the fabulous costumes designed by triply talented Munsey.
Alternating keyboardists Pamela Wilt and Reenie Codelka lead their musicians in every great tune.
Leading lady and four-time Helen Hayes Award nominee Gulisano-Sunday reprises her role as Betty Haynes, bringing special glow to her warm delivery of "Count Your Blessings." She later adds a torch-song poignancy to "Love, You Didn't Do Me Right" in her major number. Gulisano-Sunday's Betty has substantial rapport with Munsey's Bob, although she is overqualified to play the tired routine of the on-and-off-again relationship with Bob.
Also reprising her role as Judy Haynes is Julia Lancione, who adds stylish charm to the Betty and Judy "Sisters" duet and later adds sharp zesty humor to "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun" trio with Betty and Martha. In addition to her heartfelt singing, Lancione delivers some nifty dance moves and creates notable rapport with stage partner James.
Jane Boyle is a comic standout in the supporting role of Martha Watson, the busybody manager of General Waverly's inn, and she also proves she can belt out a tune with Ethel Merman-style brass in "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" that brought loud and sustained audience applause.
Samn Huffer reprises his role as Waverly, creating a tough officer who in a grateful speech expresses his admiration for his troops and a tender spot for his granddaughter Susan.
Granddaughter Susan Waverly is played alternately by Kaila Friedman and Jacqueline Kempa.
All the supporting players in this production's large 30-member cast contribute to the overall magic. And special kudos to the 10-member dance ensemble who rate top marks for their amazing, energetic dancing and well-attuned choral harmonies.
Theater owner and artistic director Toby Orenstein offers us more than a holiday gift with Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," which celebrates America's most prolific songwriter.
When asked about Berlin's place in American music, composer Jerome Kern famously replied, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he IS American music."