Sometimes, especially during the holiday season, the occasion calls for something sweet — and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the Musical at Toby’s Dinner Theatre is a morsel that is sure to satisfy. I have to admit that I went in without seeing the 1954 film on which it is based, but I now understand its wide appeal. I also have to admit that I was already quite familiar with this venue, having grown up in Columbia. Going to Toby’s was always a treat, and being in the space as a guest did seem more meaningful after surviving the Great Arts Disruption of 2020.
Company member Robert Biedermann hosted this Veterans Day performance, joking around and setting a friendly atmosphere after everyone enjoyed the delicious gourmet buffet. We were lucky to have a few veterans in attendance, who, appropriately, got an ovation. If you’re not familiar with White Christmas, it’s a classic musical setup: two WWII vets with a successful song-and-dance act follow two singing sisters to their Christmas show at a rural Vermont lodge, but there is no business at the inn — and therefore no audience, show, or paycheck. It also happens that the failing inn is owned by their old Army commander, which heightens the stakes. For the sake of their mentor and their romances, they can’t allow the show to fail — so the men hatch a plan to enlist fellow soldiers, NYC friends, and even a pal from the Ed Sullivan Show to try to make the event (and an audience) happen.
With a book by David Ives and Paul Blake and music and lyrics by the legendary Irving Berlin, White Christmas is set up to succeed. Berlin has been called “the greatest songwriter who ever lived,” and he brought the hits with this score. I was pleasantly surprised at how many songs I already knew and loved. Berlin also gave us a peek into his own Army experience with the storyline of White Christmas, which was well served by the cast and Director Mark Minnick.
Directing this musical spectacular must have been a task, but, as Minnick is already familiar with the unusual stage layout and four entrances, he easily creates lines and shapes to rival a spirograph. He challenges the actors with wildly varied blocking that keeps the audience guessing, but doesn’t make his players use the steep stairs too often (my heart!). A long descent is a thrill reserved for big entrances, but he’s still a pro at creating stage levels using the bottom few steps. And, despite his deft directing hand, Minnick’s best accomplishment is creating a strong connection between his actors.
The show opens by introducing goofy Army buddies Bob Wallace (played by Jeffrey Shankle) and Phil Davis (played by David James) at the end of WWII, then skips ahead to their mid-1950s stardom. Though the military scenes add structure and some of the show’s more poignant moments, the heart of White Christmas lies in the whirlwind romance of the two couples. Accordingly, the action and energy pick up at the arrival of the charming Haynes Sisters (Alicia Osborn and Janine Sunday).
The two buddies complement each other well, with the compelling Jeffrey Shankle playing the more levelheaded and ambitious Bob. Shankle interprets Bob as a classic Hollywood gentleman, honest and naturally likable. The effervescent David James plays the flightier, flirtier Phil with an impish charm and bouncy physicality. Both have great voices and offer satisfyingly seasoned readings of their individual songs, but they find their stride when singing together. Their chemistry was undeniable, letting them coast through “Happy Holiday,” “White Christmas,” “What Can You Do With a General,” the very amusing “Sisters (Reprise),” and “The Old Man.” Jeffrey and David also work well with Justin Calhoun — who plays Ralph Sheldrake with an affable Jimmy Stewart–like presence in “Happy Holiday,” “White Christmas,” and “The Old Man (Reprise).” And, of course, both leads gel with the presumed glue of the cast, Robert Biedermann, who plays a very convincing General Henry Waverly — exuding warmth and wisdom while singing his numbers and delivering his grandfatherly quips.
Meanwhile, the H.S.I.C. (Haynes Sisters In Charge) are a whole show on their own. Both smart and stunning ladies, Judy and Betty make the perfect performing pair, and Alicia Osborn and Janine Sunday prove it with their enchanting Andrews Sisters–esque harmonies. They’re also respectable — both of their romances are squeaky clean and innocent (despite a few infidelity jokes typical of the time). Betty is more grounded and independent, and Janine plays her with a core of believable integrity, a beaming smolder, and an astonishing vocal ability. Her warm tones took me there in “Love and the Weather,” “Sisters” (yes, all I thought of was the referential SNL sketch), “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” and “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.” Alicia Osborn, a gifted actor with striking features, plays fiery Judy with flair and finesse, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her (I blame the impossibly adorable blonde wig). Her voice was clear and powerful, and I felt decidedly Broadway-adjacent while watching her absolutely demolish her numbers: “Sisters,” “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing,” “I Love A Piano,” and “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun.”
Two of the best introductions are saved until late in Act I — the delightful granddaughter Susan Waverly (played by Nina Brothers for this performance) and innkeeper Martha Watson (Jane C. Boyle). Though a harried administrative type, Martha is a rock for the rest of the characters (despite her one faux pas which causes a major mix-up), and the radiant Jane C. Boyle plays her with tongue firmly in cheek. She drives a lot of the comic vignettes, boosts energy in group numbers, and even gets a silly “chase scene” in Act II. Jane also brings top-notch singing chops to her solo, “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” As for the magnetic Susan, she provides the perfect tiny foil to the elders’ antics, and Nina plays her with cute and rubbery facial expressions, confident delivery, and a bell-clear singing voice. Her special reprise in Act II is one of the musical’s most heartwarming moments.
The ensemble cast are stars in their own right, providing vocal bright spots, diversity, quirk factor, and comic relief. When it comes to musicals, more is more — and they dazzle on “Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go,” “Snow,” “Blue Skies,” “I Love A Piano,” and “White Christmas.” The ensemble also sparkles during the “show within a show” (as a former actor, one of my favorite concepts). Rita (Patricia Targete) and Rhoda (Alexis Krey) are cute, twinsy showgirls with funny bits and mad dance skills, and Shawn Kettering gets to play a handful of hilarious parts, including Ezekiel Foster, the beloved barn hand. Amanda Kaplan (Tessie) stands out with her joyful demeanor and strong comedic energy, and Rachel Kemp Whittenberger is a great dancer and mesmerizing Cigarette Girl. Both of their voices demanded my attention several times. Brook Urquhart, Quadry Brown, Brandon Bedore, and AJ Whittenberger are positively fantastic singers, dancers, and ensemble members at the height of professionalism. And DeCarlo Raspberry is delectably funny as Mike Nulty, the Stage Manager, channeling every bit of backstage stress he’s ever felt in real life.
Mark Minnick’s stage pictures are only amplified by Christen Svingos’ full-on flashy choreography, including complex ensemble dance numbers in the round. I particularly appreciate the courting ritual vibe of “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing” and the shimmering spectacle of “Blue Skies” — and Christen’s success in choreographing “Snow” as a dance on a railway car is impressive. Svingos and Minnick work well together to make sure performers are visible from all angles, and that each corner serves as “center stage” at least once. Both the captivating dance arrangements and the beautiful vocal arrangements are provided by the talented Bruce Pomahac.
Regarding fabrics: Janine Sunday has won my heart with her double-duty stint as the costume designer for this show, with an extraordinary collection of gorgeously detailed dresses, lustrous dance costumes, realistic military garb, and matching skirt suits. I’m a matchy-matchy person, and she has the concept down pat. Though I’m not sure how she manages so many costume changes. It’s also remarkable how she finds and makes so many dazzling costumes laden with expensive-looking taffeta, metallics, velvets, and rhinestones. She even goes full top hats, canes, and satin tails for the Act I finale.
Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin was an expert in setting each scene’s mood with spotlights, fog, and colored gels. The nighttime scene with blue-green tones and woodsy shadows was a favorite. Sound Designer Mark Smedley’s choices complemented the cast and orchestra well — I particularly loved the sound design of the railroad scene, along with Betty’s solo show in NYC. At this performance, the sound team took great care to keep the mics loud and clear, and the sound effects timely and crisp. Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins adorned the stage with iconic ’50s decor — chintz, tinsel, and all the holiday trimmings, backed with warm wood paneling, sconces, chandeliers, and lighted wreaths. Set pieces moved on and off smoothly thanks to the properties crew, and the centerpiece — huge wooden beams that changed shape depending on the scene’s location — won the night.
More than deserving of a special note is the orchestra — conducted that evening by Music Director Ross Scott Rawlings. With punchy orchestrations by Larry Blank, the musicians had the perfect road map to a flawless performance. They treated the audience to a soundscape of piano, trumpet, reeds, woodwinds, trombone, and percussion to match any Broadway pit. Sometimes orchestras serve the score best by blending in so perfectly that you don’t notice them, which this group did at times — but they also took their big moments when they could — shining particularly bright during “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing,” “I Love a Piano,” and “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”
As the audience cleared and the last snowflake fell, we departed with the thought that White Christmas was a comforting, family-friendly night of entertainment — a treat for the eyes, ears, stomach, and soul. We liked it so much that watching the movie will become a new holiday tradition for our family — and that result from this experience has me feeling some type of way. It’s the right time of the year to be thankful, so let’s call it that.
Running Time: Three hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the Musical runs through January 9, 2022, at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Showtimes are Tuesday through Sunday, and showtimes and prices vary. Senior, military, and group rates are available. Tickets can be purchased directly through the box office by calling 410-730-8311. To purchase tickets online, visit Ticketmaster.com.
The Toby’s Dinner Theatre COVID safety policy is here.
The playbill for Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the Musical is here.
“Happy Holiday” – Bob, Phil, and Sheldrake
“White Christmas” – Bob, Phil, and Sheldrake
“Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go” – Bob, Phil & Ensemble
“Love and the Weather” – Bob & Betty
“Sisters” – Betty & Judy
“The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” – Phil & Judy
“Snow” – Phil, Judy, Bob, Betty & Passengers
“What Can You Do With A General?” – Martha, Bob & Phil
“Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” – Martha
“Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” – Bob & Betty
“Blue Skies” – Bob & Ensemble
“I Love a Piano” – Phil, Judy & Ensemble
“Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” – Martha, Betty & Judy
“Sisters” (Reprise) – Bob & Phil
“Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” – Betty
“How Deep is the Ocean” – Bob
“The Old Man” – Bob & Men
“Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (Reprise) – Susan
“How Deep is the Ocean” (Reprise) – Betty & Bob
“The Old Man” (Reprise) – Bob, Phil, Sheldrake & Men
“White Christmas” – Company
“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” – Company
Cast in order of appearance
Ralph Sheldrake – Justin Calhoun
Bob Wallace – Jeffrey Shankle
Phil Davis – David James
General Henry Waverly – Robert Biedermann
TV Announcer and Mike Nulty – DeCarlo Raspberry
Rita – Patricia Targete
Rhoda – Alexis Krey
Tessie and Mrs. Snoring Man – Amanda Kaplan
Judy Haynes – Alicia Osborn
Betty Haynes – Janine Sunday
Cigarette Girl – Rachel Kemp Whittenberger
Jimmy, Snoring Man, and Ezekiel Foster – Shawn Kettering
Conductor – Brook Urquhart
Martha Watson – Jane C. Boyle
Susan Waverly – Nina Brothers, Anna Jachero, or Ava Rose LaManna
Ensemble: Quadry Brown, Brandon Bedore, Amanda Kaplan, Rachel Kemp Whittenberger, Alexis Krey, Patricia Targete, Brook Urquhart, AJ Whittenberger Swings: Drew Holcombe & Christen Svingos
Understudies: Justin Calhoun (Bob Wallace), Brandon Bedore (Phil Davis), MaryKate Brouillet (Betty Haynes), Amanda Kaplan (Judy Haynes), Tina DeSimone (Martha Watson), Christen Svingos (Rita/Rhoda), David Bosley-Reynolds (General/Sheldrake/Ezekiel/Mike)
Conductor/Keyboard I – Ross Scott Rawlings, Nathan Scavilla
Keyboard II – Reenie Codelka, Ann Prizzi
Trumpet – Mike Barber, Tony Neenan
Reeds/Woodwinds – Lori Fowser, Steve Haaser, Dan Janis, Charlene McDaniel
Trombone – Patrick Crossland, Jay Ellis, Don Patterson
Drums/Percussion – Bob LaForce, Brett Schatz
Director – Mark Minnick
Choreographer – Christen Svingos
Music Director – Ross Scott Rawlings
Assistant Conductor – Nathan Scavilla
Assistant Stage Manager – Vanessa Vincent
Scenic Designer – David A. Hopkins
Lighting Designer – Lynn Joslin
Sound Designer – Mark Smedley
Costume Designer – Janine Sunday
Technical Director – Jimmy Engelkemier
Assistant Technical Director – John Pantazis
Set Construction – David A. Hopkins, Jimmy Engelkemier, John Pantazis
Properties Coordinator – Shane Lowry
Running Crew – Shane Lowry, Sarah Tossman, Brian Wensus, Vanessa Vincent
Light Board Operators – Jimmy Engelkemier, Heather Williams
Sound Board Operator – John Pantazis
Costume Shop Assistants – Sarah King, Carrie Seidman
About Toby’s Dinner Theatre: Toby’s offers award-winning Broadway and original musicals with an exceptional buffet-style dinner. Over 40 years, 100 Helen Hayes Award nominations have confirmed the excellence of their productions. This unique venue, with amazing performances “in the round,” provides each guest with a dynamic interactive experience and a great view, with no seat more than 30 feet from the stage. Additionally, Toby’s is one of the few regional dinner theaters featuring a live orchestra. You can find more information about all shows and buy tickets at tobysdinnertheatre.com/.