In Columbia, Toby's gift of a 'White Christmas'

Janine Gulisano-Sunday stops the show with a jazzy torch solo in “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” now at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia through Jan. 8, 2012.
Janine Gulisano-Sunday stops the show with a jazzy torch solo in “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” now at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia through Jan. 8, 2012. (Photo by Kirstine Christiansen)

"Irving Berlin's White Christmas" is a nostalgia-laced ticket to simpler times, so consider it a gift from Toby Orenstein to your family this holiday.

Here is basically the same show and cast that had audiences at Toby's-Baltimore cheering back in 2009. Now it has been successfully restaged in Columbia, transforming Orenstein's table-side playhouse into a tuneful snow globe of seasonal entertainment.


This is the expanded, Broadway edition of everyone's favorite holiday movie, which turns out to be "just like the one we used to know" … and then some.

Familiarity is both a virtue and a danger when it comes to adapting such popular movies to live theater. The more times you've seen the original 1954 Paramount musical, the more you will have to struggle — at least in the beginning — against the memories of Bing Crosby's velvety lullabies, Danny Kaye's virtuoso scene-stealing, and the complementary feminine charms of Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.


But relax, you will get into the new spirit soon enough.

Amazingly, the singing at Toby's is, by and large, just as good as in the film. In fact, Janine Gulisano-Sunday almost slinks away with the whole show in the second act with a drop-dead torch ballad that even surpasses Rosemary Clooney's version in the film. More on that in a minute.

Even those who have never seen the movie aren't likely to find following the plot too great a challenge.

A couple of World War II song-and-dance men turn their theater-of-war act into a peacetime headline attraction in the early 1950s. Now the team hopes to use its fame to rescue an out-of-the-way Vermont inn owned by their old army commander. Along the way, the performers cross romantic paths with a rising sister act and have to work through some shallow misunderstandings.

The stage adaptation wisely streamlines the particulars. For one thing, it drops the Phil Davis character's annoying "I saved your life" gambit, putting him more on an equal footing with his partner from the start.

Happily, the road to happiness for our two ex-GIs is marked with huge signposts marked Berlin — Mrs. Berlin's son, Irving, that is. Not only do we get to hear all the gems from the film's score ("Blue Skies," "Count Your Blessings," "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing," "Sisters," et al), we're also treated to some of his other choice hits for the likes of Astaire and Jolson, such as "I Love a Piano," "Let Yourself Go," "How Deep is the Ocean" and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy."

All of it unwraps smoothly on the sunken center stage at Toby's, which even accommodates a cross-section of a railway car at one point for an elaborate choral work-up of the song "Snow" by a snowballing number of Vermont travelers.

David Hopkins' stylized barn and inn set-pieces get the job done. He also manages to suggest an upscale Manhattan nightclub at one point. That is where Janine Gulisano-Sunday stands stock still in a glittery evening gown and delivers the knock-out torch number, "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me."

It is the one vocal standout in the show that improves upon the movie, where it was delivered in a self-pitying snit by Rosemary Clooney. But here, as she did in the memorable Baltimore version, Gulisano-Sunday bathes it in a soft, sultry mist of defiance that breathes new life into her character while hoisting Berlin's second-tier ballad into showstopper territory. The performer may finally get the Helen Hayes Award that was denied her four times previously.

Also returning as the other singing Haynes sister, Julia Lancione more than holds her own in the duet "Sisters," and provides some of the evening's most fluid dance moves during "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing."

The two male leads are wonderfully played by long-time regional favorites Larry Munsey and David James. Munsey's gifts as an actor, dancer, director, costume designer and much more have been acknowledged by reviewers many times over the years. But "White Christmas" brings his singing talent more into focus.

While there's nothing dazzlingly distinctive about Munsey's crooning, it is always spot-on. He may have the best ear for music of any singer in Maryland, which means that if you're lucky enough to harmonize with him, you can rest assured that you'll both come out covered with glory. That really pays dividends in a show this stacked with gorgeous duets and choral work.


Of course, co-star David James doesn't need any help looking and sounding good. The multiple Hayes Award-winner had no trouble getting us to warm to him as Munsey's affable, womanizing sidekick, Phil Davis.

Others making valuable contributions to the entertainment were Jane Boyle as Martha Watson, the comical concierge who belts out "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy"; Samn Huffer as the beloved and cantankerous General Waverly; and the scene-stealing youngsters playing his precocious granddaughter Susan, Kaila Friedman and Jacqueline Kempa.

Paula Lynn handles the choreography this time around, and it's full of upbeat, spirited moves and era-specific touches that are comfortably delivered by the ensemble.

The live, full-sounding musical arrangements are provided by just three talented pit musicians and a computer-age gizmo known as a Sinfonia, conducted by Pam Witt and Reenie Codelka.

All families who have loved watching this movie's annual TV broadcasts may be surprised at what a tasty spread it makes when served fresh out of the can. Musical theater fans of all ages: Finding a table at Toby's should be one more reason to "Count Your Blessings" this season.

"Irving Berlin's White Christmas: The Musical" continues at Toby's — The Dinner Theatre of Columbia through Jan. 8, 2012. Ticket prices depend on day and performance, and include parking, a wide-ranging hot dinner buffet, salad and desserts. Reservations are required at 410-649-1660 or 1-866-99TOBYS. For show schedules, photos and theater information, go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

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