JPAS showcases Irving Berlin in holiday show

By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)

Being Jewish during Christmas season presents many challenges to American Jews but, paradoxically, Jews have been behind a great many of the popular American holiday songs heard at this time of the year. As examples, jazz great Mel Torme wrote “The Christmas Song” on one of the hottest days in Los Angeles in 1945 and Broadway composer Frank Loesser penned this year’s controversial “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in 1942.

Leading stars (left and center) Mandy Mueller (Judy Haynes) and Bryce Slocumb (Phil Wallace) and Kevin Murphy (Bob Davis) and Melissa Cotton Hunter (Betty Haynes) in “Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas.” (Photo by John Barrois)

No Jewish composer has ever had more Christmas success, though, than Irving Berlin. Berlin wanted to get into the holiday spirit with his own seasonal entry in 1942 for a Bing Crosby motion picture titled “Holiday Inn.” Although the song won an Oscar as Best Song,  it sold modestly at first. However, it took on a life of its own in 1947, when it was re-recorded by Decca Records with most of the original session men and the original orchestration and arrangement.    

By the time the 1950s rolled around, it was well on its way to not only being the most popular Christmas song of all time, but the most popular song ever, a distinction it still holds today with a Guinness World Record citation. 

Berlin and Crosby partnered with Paramount Pictures in 1953 for a film project that would be a vehicle for Berlin’s songs. The Technicolor and VistaVison classic released in 1954 also had Jewish movie star Danny Kaye play opposite Crosby with Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney as their love interests. It went on to be the top grossing film of 1954. 

Several years ago, the original screenplay was turned into a holiday musical featuring many of Berlin’s secular songs such as “Blue Skies,” “Count Your Blessings”  and “I Love a Piano.” The book by David Ives and Paul Blake was based on Norman Krasna’s screenplay and played here several years ago at Le Petit Theatre and last year the national tour made a stop at the Saenger Theater here.

This year, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) is presenting its own production of the show at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, selecting Michael McKelvey as the director. In many ways, this production with its high production values, could rival last year’s national tour.

Kevin Murphy and Bryce Slocumb are Wallace and Davis, Broadway’s hottest duo in “Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas.'” (Photo by John Barrois)

McKelvey, who scored big with his direction of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” earlier this year for JPAS is quite accustomed to the director’s role. He is the artistic director at Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane, after all.

However, he was forced to step into the unexpected role of maestro, picking up the baton for the ailing JPAS artistic director Dennis Assaf, who was originally scheduled to conduct. With very little time and consummate skill abiding, McKelvey has turned out a magnificent rendition of a holiday surefire winner with music director Donna Clavijo at his side in the orchestra pit.

In fact, the JPAS orchestra has never sounded better with the sumptuous sounds of Berlin filling the Jefferson Performing Arts Center to the rafters with holiday joy. It’s not just a holiday celebration. It’s a celebration of Irving Berlin.

For the two pairs of leading men and ladies, McKelvey scored big with the casting of Kevin Murphy and Bryce Slocumb as song-and-dance men Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, respectively, and Melissa Cotton Hunter and Mandy Mueller as sister act Betty and Judy Haynes.

Aside from the brilliant Berlin arrangements, the four singers and dancers hold the key success of the show in their rapport with their partners and their interaction with each other. The performances are nothing less than exquisite.

Mandy Mueller is Judy Haynes with Melissa Cotton Hunter as Betty Haynes in “Sisters.” (Photo by John Barrois)

Murphy and Slocumb and Hunter and Muller prove to be skilled singers, but equally as important are their skills as dancers in several big production numbers choreographed by the brilliant Jauné Buisson. Buisson adds her own hoofing talent to the show playing the supporting role of Rhoda, a member of the show company headed up by Wallace and Davis.

But in her role as choreographer, Buisson reigns supreme. Her highly inventive pieces include big tap dance numbers like Act One’s “Let Yourself Go” and the Act Two opener “I Love a Piano.” Both require the leading actors to start the movement on stage, but it’s not long afterward that the stage is filled with tap-dancers executing one exciting move after another.

When the tap shoes are off, the dancers also do quite well in one show-stopping number to the next. With Berlin’s music and Buisson’s choreography, McKelvey has scored a holiday Exacta that would make the Fairgrounds envious.

As charming and mellifluous as Murphy and Slocumb are, Hunter and Mueller are equally as talented in turning out a song or fashioning a dance step on the stage. Their first act specialty fan number “Sisters” is reminiscent of the film’s staging, but a completely new choreographed piece envisioned by Buisson.

Martha Watson (Maria Hefte) leads the troupe in “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” (Photo by John Barrois)

Of the secondary characters, Maria Hefte as Martha Watson is a real standout. As Martha, she is the protector of retired General Henry Waverly (Roger Magendie), who runs a failing inn in Vermont into which he has sunk his entire life’s savings and pension. Waverly is established as the no-nonsense, widely-admired general of the 151st Division of the U.S. Army during World War II in which Captain Bob Wallace and Private Phil Davis first become celebrities. The remainder of the scenes take place over the Christmas season of 1954.

Hefte belts out her version of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” with a backing group of hoofers eager to show off their prowess on the dance floor. The premise, of course, is the Broadway company originally heading to Florida is detoured to snow-less Vermont as a means of putting on a show designed to raise funds to save the inn and the general.

The troupe of performers is called upon to breathe life into one Berlin classic after another such as Act One’s closer “Blue Skies” and the Act Two finsher “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Of course, “White Christmas” is too good a classic not to find its way into both acts, first as a solo piece by Murphy in his show with the troops and later as the penultimate number in the show with all the players.

Young Ellie Bono does a remarkable job as the general’s granddaughter, who at first is counseled by Bob Wallace in how to “Count Your Blessings.” It’s the number that allows Judy to see Wallace’s qualities both as a family man and a potential mate. There’s no question that Mueller and Murphy do have chemistry on the stage in their roles. Later on, Bono does a follow-up to Hefte’s signature song when she belts out her own version of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” too.

In “‘Snow” Bob Wallace (Kevin Murphy), center, recognizes he’s on his way to Vermont for Christmas. (Photo by John Barrois)

In “I Love a Piano” Slocomb and Hunter are able to pair up nicely too as Phil Davis and Betty Haynes.  With Slocomb’s lanky arms and legs, he resembles a youthful Ray Bolger or Buddy Ebsen. He has a bit a devilish charm in his role as a womanizing lothario early on before he is eventually tamed by Betty.

Adam Segrave provides comic relief as TV producer and former war buddy of Wallace and Davis, Ralph Sheldrake. Also, good in his portrayal of slow-moving Ezekiel Foster is Jimmy deMontluzin. However, it’s a little more difficult to love Magendie’s performance as the general. He seems distant, which is a good quality in a general, but there are times when his performance is more wooden than genuine. This especially takes away from the scenes he shares between him and Hefte as the inn’s caretaker.

All in all, though, this is a show rises above the other traditional holiday fare and is no doubt due to the industry of McKelvey and his team. While we do miss Assaf’s presence on the scene, he should take solace while he is on the mend that McKelvey has his back magnificently. This is a show for the entire family and the only regrettable aspect to the holiday season is that it only runs one weekend more.

“Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas'” continues at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive, in Metairie, LA. Showtimes on Fridays and Saturday nights are at 7:30 p.m. The final performance will be the Sunday matinee on Dec. 16 at 2:00 p.m.

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