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Much like the one you used to know…

The Fort Wayne Civic’s White Christmas

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


How do you approach a stage production of one of the most well-known movie musicals of all time, featuring perhaps one of the best-selling, most often-covered songs ever composed?

You go big.

That’s what the Civic Theater’s doing for White Christmas, which begins its run on Saturday, November 6. It’s a pull-out-all-the-stops, bring-on-the-dance-chorus-and-the-killer-tunes kind of musical, and… well, it better be that kind of musical. The film is a holiday classic, after all, and has been since it was released in 1954. The stage version didn’t come along until 2004. “It follows the movie pretty accurately, but they added four or five Irving Berlin songs to the stage production,” says director Becky Niccum.

Niccum has the responsibility of coordinating this massive production, which includes a dance chorus, a 12-piece orchestra, and plenty of scene and costume changes. But Niccum is a pro at musical theater — she’s helmed Annie, West Side Story, Big River and several others — and enjoys the collaborative process of putting on a big show. “Well, I wouldn’t say I’m a ‘pro,’ she laughs. “But I really do like it. I get so much energy out of the musicals. You go in and hear all the music, see all the dancing, and then you get to put it all together. It just gives me a tremendous amount of energy.”

The secret to pulling it off is, of course, the cast. “I’ve got a fabulous cast,” Niccum says. “They’ve made each of these characters their own.”

Niccum has also tried to make White Christmas her own. Not that this is any kind of radical re-imagining of the story (it doesn’t need it), but about a year ago, when Niccum learned she was going to be directing White Christmas for the Civic, she skipped watching it last holiday season. Michael Nelaborige, who plays Phil Davis (the Danny Kaye role), says that fortunately the cast didn’t have the pressure of trying to recreate the movie characters. “Obviously, no one could be Bing Crosby or Rosemary Clooney,” he says. “The good thing with the stage version is that of course they couldn’t write it that way. So, the story is really two go-get-‘em guys and two great gals who meet and fall in love and all that stuff.”

That said, some members of the cast, including Nelaborige, took a quick look at the film. Abigail Ehinger says she was very familiar with the career of Vera Ellen, the actress who played Judy Haynes in the movie. “Growing up as a dancer, I really admired Ellen’s work,” says Ehinger, who estimates she’s been in around 60 stage productions in the area, as an actor and choreographer. “I’ve pretty much always done musical theater. That’s my forte.”

White Christmas has a couple numbers that allow Ehinger to dig deep into her dance repetoire. “There are two fairly large numbers I get to do with Michael Nelaborige (Phil Davis), “ she says. “We do a number at the beginning of the show called ‘The Best Things Happen While You Dance.’ It’s sort of a dream sequence kind of thing where we first meet each other. It flow through so many styles; we might go from a calm jazz to a little ballet to ballroom… it incorporates all of that into one number.”

She and Nelaborige even get to do some tap dancing in the second act for “I Love A Piano” (one of the songs not in the original movie). Her partner also ranks it as his favorite scene. “We don’t get a chance to tap dance too much in Fort Wayne these days,” says Nelaborige, whose 15-year career as a professional actor includes stints on cruise ships and at theme parks. “The younger kids aren’t picking it up. Tap dancing was sort of ‘out’ when we were the young kids, but the old timers were still around and we learned it from them.”

Nancy Kartholl (Betty Haynes) looked at snippets of the original movie after she was cast to get a sense of style, but she was already familiar with it. “Ever since I saw the movie, I was immediately drawn to that Rosemary Clooney role, as in ‘boy, would I love to play that role and sing those songs someday’,” she says.

She likes the big torch song “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me” in particular (she sings it backed up by the 12-piece orchestra). “That song is ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back’, but in the part where boy loses girl, that’s heart-breaking for her, and she gets to express it in this wonderful song,” Kartholl says.

“The stakes are high for these people,” she continues. “We tend to think of musical theater as being maybe ‘less-dimensional’ than a straight drama, but that’s not really the case. We’re talking about these characters falling in love and meeting their partners, and that’s big stuff. So, to me, that’s the most important thing, to create the relationships on stage and show that the stakes are high, because they are in real life.”

But if there was one actor you might expect to feel the pressure of audience expectations, it might be Kerry Ashton, who plays Bob Wallace. Ashton spent 10 years as a professional actor in Pennsylvania before moving back to Fort Wayne, tentatively getting back into theater with a role in The Twelve and then as a part of the chorus in White Christmas. “Long story short, there were casting problems, and they called me in and said ‘we understand you have some professional theater experience. Could you take the Bob Wallace role?’ I said: ‘who is that?’ They said: ‘errr… the Bing Crosby part’.”

In short, Ashton says he simply didn’t know the movie that well. He’s familiar with the tune (who isn’t?), and as a fan of musicals he likes Irving Berlin, but the story itself, and the character, are sort of new to him. “Actually, for a long time I didn’t know the difference between White Christmas and Holiday Inn,” he says (the song “White Christmas” first made its appearance in Holiday Inn about 14 years before White Christmas).
A few of the leads in White Christmas are returning to the stage after being away from it for several years. Ashton grew up in the area, but moved back to Fort Wayne about three years ago to raise a family, and says he was pleasantly surprised to find such a strong theater community here. “I left for Chicago and then Pennsylvania right after I graduated from college, and I had no idea what was here,” he says. “I’m very happy to find this part of Fort Wayne.”

The Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents White Christmas

Saturday, November 6 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, November 7 at 2:00 PM

Friday November 12 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, November 13 at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM
Sunday, November 14 at 2:00 PM

Friday November 19 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, November 20 at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM
Sunday, November 21 at 2:00 PM

Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Tickets: $24/adults; $16/youth/student; $20/Seniors — Sunday Matinee

Box Office: 424-5220

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