AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Directed by Virginia Musante
Presented by Hillbarn Theatre
1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, CA / (650) 349-6411

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Hillbarn Theatre gets the holiday season off to a festive start with "White Christmas," Irving Berlin's musical tribute to love, family and friendship.

Inspired by the 1942 film "Holiday Inn," "White Christmas" was first seen in a 1954 film starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. After being adapted for the stage, it has become a holiday staple for theaters across the country.

Hillbarn's production features two Equity actors, Pierce Peter Brandt as Bob Wallace (the Crosby role) and Jim Ambler as Phil Davis (the Kaye role).

Written by David Ives and Paul Blake, the story starts on Christmas Eve 1944 when Army buddies Bob and Phil put on a holiday show for their unit and its commander, General Waverly (Bob Fitzgerald), in Europe.

Fast-forward 10 years. Bob and Phil have a popular song and dance act seen on TV's "The Ed Sullivan Show." Its producer tells them about a must-see sister act by Betty Haynes (Melissa O'Keefe in the Clooney role) and Judy Haynes (Amanda Farbstein in the Vera-Ellen role).

There's instant attraction between Phil and Judy, but not so much between Bob and Betty.

By coincidence, the sisters are booked at a Vermont inn owned by General Waverly. The two men wind up joining them. As a lack of snow and a backlog of bills threaten the inn's viability, the men undertake to save it.

Directed by Virginia Musante, the Hillbarn production features an engaging cast. Executing the interesting choreography by Gennine Harrington, all four leads are excellent dancers, as is much of the supporting cast. Fans of the late Bob Fosse will recognize him as the inspiration for the Act 1closer, "Blue Skies," featuring Bob and the chorus. Lovers of tap dancing will enjoy "I Love a Piano," performed by Phil, Judy and the chorus to open Act 2.

With musical and vocal direction by Tracy Chiappone, the leads also sing and act well. O'Keefe is notable in Betty's torch song, "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me." Co-musical director Rick Reynolds conducts the orchestra, which gets too loud at times, overpouring the singers.

Among supporting roles, Claudia McCarley is a standout as the wisecracking Martha Watson, the inn's longtime receptionist and manager. Poised and polished, 9-year-old Emily Mannion plays Susan Waverly, the general's sharp-as-a-whip granddaughter. She brings down the house in the reprise of "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," first sung by Martha.

The show is loaded with memorable tunes. Besides those already mentioned, there are "Sisters," "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," "How Deep Is the Ocean" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." Then there's the title song, heard in both acts, each time with the audience invited to sing along.

On the design side, credit goes to Kuo-Hao Lo for sets that allow quick changes between scenes, to Don Coluzzi for the lighting, to Kate Schroeder for the costumes and Andrew Kang for the sound.

Besides being such an enjoyable, well done show, the production is notable for the welcome debut of Hillbarn's new, more spacious restrooms along with new offices and a refurbished lobby.

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