Keeton Theatre's White Christmas and Studio Tenn's A Christmas Carol provide worthy holiday fare 

'Tis the Season

'Tis the Season

Two very different holiday-themed shows continue on through the weekend, each rewarding in its own way.

If warmhearted hokum and the amazing song catalog of Irving Berlin float your gravy boat, you can't beat Keeton Theatre's dinner-theater production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas.

Co-authoring this 2004 stage adaptation of the 1954 movie musical is none other than David Ives, a playwright and journalist with high intellectual cred (his works include All in the Timing and Venus in Fur) who in the latter part of his career has become active in musical theater. The textual changes have substance but are not severe — in fact, Ives and co-author Paul Blake's tweaks make room for more Berlin.

The setting is the postwar 1950s. The somewhat dated if diverting humor of the original film remains in place, as "superstar" entertainers (and ex-GIs) Bob Wallace and Phil Davis fall for the talented singing Haynes Sisters and end up spending the holidays at a Vermont inn owned by their former commanding officer, who's had difficulty adjusting to civilian life.

From there we get the "Let's put on a show" format, as 20 musical numbers are presented with high energy by a cast working at mixed levels of experience but under the solid guidance of co-directors Ginger Newman and Jamie London.

The principals don't threaten the legend of the movie's stars (including the redoubtable Bing Crosby), but Jonathan Perry, Noah Rice, Tonya Pewitt and Melissa Husebo have no problem finding their own agreeable grooves with their characters, who eventually find true love amid the story's contrived misunderstandings. Husebo, in particular, offers a slick, peppery performance, and she and Rice shine in the Act 2 opener, "I Love a Piano," featuring relatively uncomplicated but nicely executed tap-dancing.

Co-director London also has a key supporting role that offers her opportunity to excel, first with the solo "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," and later with Pewitt and Husebo in "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun," yet another snappy but underrated Berlin tune resurrected expressly for this stage vehicle. Also deserving of mention is young Madison Marasco, who gets some smart laughs as the precocious granddaughter, Susan.

A good cast, strong score and the innocent charm of a bygone age add up to a worthy White Christmas.

Studio Tenn's TPAC mounting of A Christmas Carol makes for a spectacular downtown Nashville debut for the Franklin-based company. As expected, the Polk Theater serves as a challenging new playing area for the high-achieving ensemble's intricately textured treatment of the Dickens piece, and there are distinct dramatic benefits to presenting the affecting story on the Polk's wide-angle proscenium.

Technical director Mitch White joins with lighting designer Stephen Moss to assist director Matt Logan in realizing his elaborate and artful vision, which features a revolving center stage, rich costumes (co-designed by Anna Rushworth) and some great special effects.

In aiming for an approach that is both deadly serious and engagingly playful, Logan assembles an elite cast — a group of players well-suited to executing both the text's impressively seamless shared narration and the celebratory approach to singing and dancing.

For example, Fezziwig's Christmas party is a feast of physical merriment, evoking a quite boisterous 19th century milieu and featuring festive carols and the lively choreography of Emily Tello Speck. These moments, intentionally or not, function as counterpoint to the dour life that has been Mr. Scrooge's, revealing a more palpable sense of the human connection he has missed.

In his fourth consecutive year portraying Scrooge for Studio Tenn, Chip Arnold appears as confident as ever in his transformation from misanthropic damaged soul to committed philanthropist. He's supported by a killer ensemble of gifted pros, including Matthew Carlton, Patrick Waller, Nan Gurley, Kim Bretton and Brent Maddox. Youngster Madeleine Hall also contributes a graceful, fairylike turn as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

As the Ghost of Christmas Present, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva provides the play's most passionate declamation — she's all fire and ice as she delivers some of Dickens' most important messages.

The music by Nathan Burbank is sublime, a mix of traditional Christmas songs and his own original, classically arranged underscoring that embraces the story's big emotional moments and enhances all the action with appropriate warmth, whimsicality and inspiration. Burbank and four other musicians deliver it all with high style, live from the orchestra pit.

Paula Y. Flautt's adaptation of Dickens' novella remains strong, though slow patches late in Act 2 — first noted here in the Scene when the company initially mounted the show in 2010 — persist, and might benefit from either a deft textual edit or a push in the pacing of the scenes.

That's the only quibble of any consequence. It was apparently little noted last Saturday night, when an enthusiastic crowd rewarded the production with a standing ovation.




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