Miss Linda’s ‘White Christmas’ comes across as a classy, meticulously produced musical
Show runs again Dec. 17, 18, 19 at Great Falls High School
When you’re trying to show some class on a stage, one can almost never go wrong with piano music, suits and ties, shiny dresses or ceremonial uniforms, no matter if you’re setting a scene in 2015 or 1945.
On Friday evening during opening night, make no mistake, Miss Linda Productions showed off more class on stage than I’ve seen in some time in its presentation of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”
In that regard, they perfected the “look” of that era, the 1940s and 50s, to a tee.
It looked like a professional Broadway show, it mostly sounded like one, and, aside from a few minor problems that I’ll go into a bit later, overall it felt you were watching one.
With that let’s get into what I liked, and what I didn’t like in Miss Linda Productions’ “White Christmas,” a show directed by Joel Corda and produced by Linda Fuller. The book is by David Ives and Paul Blake, with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.
Before the show, Corda came on stage to talk a bit about what went into making “White Christmas” happen.
He also said that they had reached out to the military divisions in the area about having people from Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana Air National Guard show up to attend opening night. He said unfortunately most of the airmen and women had prior commitments and due to their busy schedules were unable to make it. He said the same happened for many local veterans, although, he did ask that any vets attending to stand up, and many of the guests in the audience did.
Corda mentioned that the entire show was dedicated to the troops and afterward the lead actors and actresses will be collecting donations at each performance to benefit Veteran’s Court and Toys for Tots, and people are welcome to bring new, unwrapped toys.
As for the performance itself, as mentioned above, even if you could not hear any of the words or music, you’d still be entertained by the pleasing palette of colors in the costumes, the backdrops and the set pieces. You could tell a lot of care and attention went to making this show look great, and you could tell right off the bat. Many kudos to Adrienne Ehrke, the costume designer, and Rory Shulte the technical director and set designer as well as stage manager Madeline Hockaday.
All of the music was performed by the talented On-Stage Jazz Trio led by Steve Olson on piano, Sterling Burch on bass and Patrick White on drums. The musical output of these three was worth the price of admission alone. Unlike even the lead actors, they were on stage for the entire evening and they rarely missed a note in the entire score.
The lead actors and actresses were mostly on-point as well. The leads are Amber Henning, as Judy Haynes, Aubrey Rearden as Betty Haynes, Nikolas Asmussen as Phil Davis and Dan Rearden as Bob Wallace. It was interesting seeing the Reardens playing romantic leads, and in that regard it worked. Oftentimes a common criticism can be the chemistry between romantic leads, but here both couples, Betty and Bob and Phil and Judy, were spectacular together. The sparks flew when they should, and the conflict appeared natural when the script called for it.
I absolutely loved almost all of the dance numbers, particularly the ones where there were 8, 9 or 10 people on stage all dancing together. Nearly everyone moved elegantly and made it all look natural. If you like seeing talented people dancing, you’ll love this show.
Focusing in a little more, this was my first time seeing Henning and Asmussen. Watching them, it felt like they were seasoned theater veterans, even though this was Asmussen’s first show in 15 years and Henning’s first in nearly as long as well. Their chemistry, as mentioned above, was natural and fun, and they delivered knock-out performances both of them.
But while it’s easy to give all your attention on the leads, the rest of the cast was just as strong, as well. Lindsey Nussbaum, David Otey, Sarah Dassinger, James Schreiber, Matt Donnelly, Colette Longin, Keern Haslem, Kim Erskine, Rocio Rivera Rosado, Mary Rapkoch Dupuis, and of course Miss Linda herself all deserve praise for their contributions.
Briefly, I loved Nussbaum’s easy-going attitude he brought to Ralph Sheldrake, and Donnelly’s frantic pace he gave the stage manager Mike. Haslem showed off a nice amount of diversity as he played several different roles, each of which he brought the same amount of enthusiasm and grace. Dassinger’s dance moves were likely the best of the entire cast, which considering who else she was on stage with, was quite extraordinary. Otey’s General Henry Waverly was strict and tout when needed and gentle when called upon, too. His role, perhaps more than any of the others, played at two extremes and Otey handled them beautifully.
Young McKenzie Connell also killed it as Susan. She starts the show off as an innocent bookworm but ends it as a Broadway star-in-the-making. She’s loaded with talent, a great singer, and it’s going to be exciting to see where she takes her on-stage talents.
But with that, let’s talk a bit about Miss Linda for a few seconds, though, shall we?
I’ve been following her productions ever since 2008 or 2009 and it wasn’t until last night that I discovered that she could act, dance and sing at such a high level. She said afterward that it’s been quite some time since she’s been on the stage but she did it because of the role as the housekeeper Martha Watson. If she doesn’t put a smile on your face, you’ll need to get your funny bone checked because she’s on point whenever she’s on stage.
Now, getting back to the leads for a second, I’ve seen Rearden in several other productions, most recently in NDM Productions’ “Wizard of Oz,” but this may have been her best showing I’ve ever seen from her. She possesses a big, beautiful voice that could possibly move mountains, and her acting complemented that talent in a way that helped the audience get lost in her character.
Her husband Dan, while his singing wasn’t quite as up there as Aubrey’s, he’s no slouch when it comes to crooning, either. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can do that role as well as Bing Crosby, so even attempting it is worth praise right there. He does it in his own way while also giving subtle nods to Crosby, at the same time.
I should also mention that the backdrop curtains helped create a real picturesque scene for the audience. While very simple, they did a great job in placing you there…be it the ski lodge in Vermont, the Regency Room in New York or the Barn Theater. They also had a full-blown passenger train car that they used to full effect in scene five for the song “Snow.”
The songs, while maybe not the most memorable of all time, are up there when it comes to making an impact on the listeners. My favorite were “Blue Skies” “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” and “Sisters” both versions featuring Betty and Judy and the hilarious parody version featuring Bob and Phil.
Because this is set in the 40’s and 50’s, when you’re doing this show you have to pay extra attention in all the time sensitive details and they delivered on that front as well. Everything in the show felt like it was transported from a time capsule and delivered to the Great Falls High auditorium post haste.
I also really enjoyed the audience-participation scene at the end. I even sung a few bars of “White Christmas” myself for good measure.
Now, while there was a lot of polish, the show was not without a few faults, also. With that let’s get to the places that could’ve used some improvement.
Now, while I did enjoy Dan Rearden’s take at Bob Wallace, there were several parts where he looked a bit stiff. Some of the songs he looked a little uncomfortable up there, even if he breezed through them vocally. I could tell he’s done a lot to work on his singing, and I would have loved to have heard where he was before this show and compare it to now. He powered through the songs he struggled with, and that’s a good thing.
Aubrey, too, at times would be blowing the roof off with her voice, but her movements felt a little lacking. I’m thinking of the Regency Room scene in particular. She’s standing there singing the lights out, but she’s standing there motionless. Just a little more movement may have made that scene even more dynamic.
As stated above, Otey’s challenge was balancing his character between a hard-ass and a soft gentleman. While he did great at the kind scenes, I couldn’t entirely buy his strict side. Part of that may have been due to the fact that I’ve seen David in other things and have a pre-conceived notion of who he is, but, it just felt like he was much more comfortable being the soft general vs. the disciplinarian.
There were several scenes where it felt like if they had a little bit more time, they could have really made them pristine. In particular there’s a scene where Phil and Judy are dancing but then Dassinger and Schreiber step in and lead the audience in an advanced dance scene that, while I can’t say for sure, may have been meant for Phil and Judy.
It didn’t take anything away from the scene because Dassinger and Schreiber did well with their dancing, but, it did feel like one of those scenes in a movie where you can tell a stuntman is being used.
While I did appreciate that the lead performers were mic-ed up, there were a few bits of technical problems. Either the sound manager would forget to turn off a mic and you could hear cross chatter, or there would be loud pops or other random mic sounds. These can all likely be attributed to opening-night issues, but they were there, nonetheless.
While it may have been where we were sitting, there were a few instances where we couldn’t quite hear everything Donnelly was saying, and part of it was due to the fact that several moments he’d be trotting at a quick pace across the stage and facing stage left or stage right. I could hear him well enough, but my associate Eric did say that he had a hard time hearing him once or twice.
In one of the dance scenes, there was a lineup of females who were dancing OK, and then there’d be another line of women who would be dancing much better. It felt a little off balanced in that regard, like you could tell the B-team was getting a chance before the A-team walked in front of them. Now, don’t think this means that any of the dancers were bad because that’s just not true. Comparatively speaking, though, I did notice how one group could handle the steps a tiny bit better than the other.
Overall the show does a lot to entertain you, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere too deep. The romantic arcs you can see coming from miles away, and the end wraps things up in an expected way. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that White Christmas was written way back in 1954 and that storytelling for that era was a bit different than it is now.
I also had to remind myself of that when a few of the scenes felt a little chauvinistic. While I enjoyed several of the jokes Phil makes about chasing women, at the same time they felt a little like he was only treating these girls as sex objects and nothing else. Again, this was 1954 and our world was a different place then, so, try to remember that if you see something that might make you go “hmmmm.”
Finally, without spoiling too much, the show ends with a little surprise when some white flaky stuff starts falling from the sky. There didn’t appear to be a whole lot of it falling, and in fact I’m not so certain people in the very back could see much of it at all. Perhaps it could have been used a little more generously for a better effect.
When I first heard that Miss Linda Productions was doing “White Christmas” I was hoping that they hadn’t bitten off more than they could chew. I knew this show had lot of moving parts, a lot of singers, a lot of costume changes and it’d take many different skills to do the production justice.
I’m happy to report that overall I think they did just that. I left the theater with a smile on my face, and thought everyone did a nice job with this massive production. Everyone, whether they were theater newcomers, regulars to the stage, or returnees after long absences, understood their parts and shined as bright as they could. So in that way, this show was a success.
If you get a chance, I recommend that you go see “White Christmas.” It’s a fitting way to celebrate the holiday season.
You can check it out next week on Dec. 17, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Great Falls High auditorium. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for military, students and children.