Toby’s current production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” is a retelling of the beloved Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye 1954 motion picture, more recently revived as a Broadway and touring show. Set less than a decade after the close of World War II, the show focuses on two war buddies turned successful showmen Bob and Phil. The two veterans visit a small town in Vermont (an unseasonably 79º warm for Christmas, it turns out), where they discover that their beloved former Army commander is now operating a failing inn. The two entertainers stage a show in order to revive their erstwhile superior’s fortunes, calling upon former servicemen, their show business connections, and local townsfolk. In the process, several romantic subplots emerge as well.
‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas’ is another Toby’s triumph.
In the hands of lesser artists, “White Christmas” would be a pleasant journey rooted in a mix of holiday nostalgia and post-war Americana. However, director Mark Minnick and his fabulously talented cast of actors, singers, and dancers have taken this pleasant show and transformed it into a holiday for the heart—one which celebrates the cheer of holiday giving, while honestly acknowledging the strains and misunderstandings which the holidays can also bring.
The lead characters Bob and Phil are portrayed by the talented Jeffrey Shankle and David James respectively. They, like the characters they portray, are both talented song-and-dance men and convey the range of emotions needed for a show which ranges from romantic comedy to the dramatic. The same can also be said of their counterparts and love interests, the singing sisters, Judy and Betty Haynes (played by the wonderful Alicia Osborn and Janine Sunday, respectively). The retired general is superbly depicted with alternating warmth and sternness by Robert Biedermann, who also performs an entertaining turn as emcee at this and other shows at Toby’s.
The smaller roles also shine and help to bring nuance to this holiday classic. There is a show-within-a-show aspect as the characters rehearse. These “behind-the-scenes” are directed by character Mike Nutly, comically portrayed by DeCarlo Raspberry. We have enjoyed Mr. Raspberry’s excellent performances before in Toby’s shows, ranging from “The Little Mermaid” to “Kinky Boots,” and here, he is in top form.
The production also emphasizes the pull of show business, in which the most unlikely people are swept up in the effort to put on an inn-saving show. Supporting characters discover that they suddenly desire their moment under the limelight, including the warm-hearted concierge, Martha (Jane C. Boyle); the taciturn farmhand, Ezekiel (Shawn Kettering); and the general’s granddaughter, Susan (the young Nina Brothers, whose excellent singing suggests a bright future ahead for her in musical theatre).
“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” is perhaps most effective for this reason: much of the show is related to Christmas incidentally, and misunderstandings between the love interests of Bob and Betty even threaten to undermine the holiday spirit. This all serves to build up dramatic tension, allowing the festive and holiday-themed parts of the show—especially the conclusion which puts forth all of its Christmas ambience—to feel both joyous and authentic.
Of course, a show of this nature requires entertaining and enthralling music, and it delivers. Song choice plays an important role as well. In addition to songs from the film such as the eponymous “White Christmas” (performed by the cast but also largely by the audience), this stage version also introduces us to staples of the Irving Berlin songbook which are well known, but absent from the 1954 film. These include a poignant “How Deep Is the Ocean” (in an interlude within a noir-like “You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” sung and performed beautifully by Janine Sunday).
The famous, non-Christmas song, “Blue Skies” is featured as well, becoming a smooth dance routine (choreographed by Christen Svingos) with white costumes (designed by actress Janine Sunday) spotlighted in blue (lighting created by Lynn Joslin). These elements make this unexpected song an effervescent moment in the show and allow the cast to shine. “I Love a Piano” is similarly grand (pun intended). Here, the ensemble breaks out into an impressive and demanding dance number, including tap dancing on a piano and on rotating platforms, suggesting the classic work of Hollywood’s Busby Berkley. “Snow,” sung by the cast on a train trip to Vermont, is an equally enjoyable sequence.
Minimalist sets in Toby’s theatre-in-the-round render the production more innovative and—relying on the use of the audience’s use of imagination—atmospheric. Added scenes, songs, and characters, as well as a superb live orchestra, make the show endearing for those familiar with the film version. An especially fun feature is that dinner and drinks on the sideline recreate, with great verisimilitude, the restaurants and lounges visited in the show itself. This mood is further enhanced with a drink special, “The Million Dollar Proposition,” named after a comical but crucial misunderstanding in the plot. With alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions of this wintry, frozen cappuccino-style drink (complete with candy cane in whipped cream) served in a souvenir glass, audience members will remember the show warmly throughout the holidays.
“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” is another Toby’s triumph. The show captures the energetic and celebratory spirit of early post-war America of the 1950s, while also showing us that people of this earlier time had many of the same foibles and misunderstandings that we have today. This production reminds us not only to celebrate the holidays, but also invites us to work through our interpersonal misunderstandings with the grace and aplomb of the characters.
Running Time: Approximately two hours 30 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
Advisory: Fog, haze, and strobe effects may be used during the show.
“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” runs through January 9, 2022, at Toby’s Dinner & Show, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044. For more information and tickets, call the box office at 410-730-8311 or click here. For Covid protocols, please click here.