It may seem like everything’s coming up humbug as theaters around Utah mount various adaptations of “A Christmas Carol,” but Ogden’s newest theatrical venue is not going all Dickensian in its first holiday outing.
Instead, the Ziegfeld Theater is transporting audiences back to the rose-colored 1950s as it presents the stage version of a beloved holiday movie musical.
“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” opens Friday, Nov. 30, at the new theater in South Ogden, and the theater has assembled a talented cast — including the four leads who are playing the roles originated in the iconic movie by Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.
The Ziegfeld musical stars Aleczander Ammon and Trevor Dean as Phil and Bob, and Erica Choffel and Rachel Shull as Judy and Betty, respectively. The production is directed by Emilie Starr and choreographed by Joshua Robinson. All four leads are local performers with ties to Weber State University’s lauded musical theater program.
The show is particularly meaningful — and a little intimidating for Ammon — who grew up in Kaysville and is a huge fan of the 1954 movie.
“It’s one of my favorite movies and I always watched it during the Christmas season,” Ammon said.
Ammon, who played Nicely-Nicely Johnson in this past summer’s production of “Guys and Dolls” at the Ziegfeld, said trying to measure up to Kaye’s dynamic portrayal has been demanding, but he is working hard to meet that challenge. Based on his impressive performance in “Guys and Dolls,” — also set in the ’50s — Ammon definitely has the right look and style to pull off the role.
Ammon is not the only one of the leads a little daunted by the shoes they are trying to fill. Shull said she is “vocally obsessed” with songstress Rosemary Clooney, renowned for her warm, smooth and rich tones.
“Her voice is so unique and pretty,” Shull said. “She is in heaven just because of her voice.”
Trying to pay homage to Clooney while creating her own interpretation of the role is a delicate balancing act for Shull. But she has the power and range to pull it off as she so adeptly proved in WSU’s recent production of “Lucky Stiff,” in which she easily belted out some pretty big notes and nearly stole the show with her comic portrayal as Rita.
“I was the crazy lady with the gun,” Shull said of that role.
One of Shull’s favorite numbers in “White Christmas” comes in the second act with Betty’s sultry number “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”
However, both Shull and Ammon noted the show contains numerous magical moments, thanks to a score by the incomparable and prolific Berlin, whose title song is arguably one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time. In fact, Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” remains the best-selling single of all time.
“It’s a very uplifting and happy Christmas story,” Shull said.
A Christmas story
Part of the charm of “White Christmas” is that it is not only a Christmas story, but a nostalgic American story reminiscent of a period of time in history that truly only existed on Hollywood’s silver screen.
“I didn’t realize how red, white and blue the show was until I started directing it,” said Ogden resident Starr, a graduate of WSU’s musical theater program.
Essentially, the story is about two World War II veterans who have become a top-selling Broadway duo. Said buddies meet two devoted sisters who are also in the biz. Cupid’s arrows soon begin flying.
One of the show’s funniest moments comes in “Sisters,” when the two buddies get prettied up to recreate their own version of the sisters’ feather-fan-friendly nightclub act. Shull explained that while the girls take the number more seriously, the boys are definitely in mock mode.
“It’s funny to see the contrast,” she said.
“It definitely makes fun of the girls a little,” Ammon added. “It’s one of my favorites and I love it.”
Meanwhile, the buddies’ commanding officer from the war is down on his luck and facing ruin due to a serious lack of snow at his Vermont inn. Christmas is approaching and the tourists are not flocking to the inn.
With the sisters in tow, the buddies step in to stage a show to attract a crowd, but the course of true love and weather patterns are always unpredictable. Well, not really, but this is a musical set in the 1950s, and the story is driven more by music and dance than by plotting.
The Ziegfeld production does include a surprise ending involving snow. Ammon said the production is one of the biggest the Ziegfeld has tackled and the cast and crew are “super prepared” and enthusiastic about putting on a show that sparkles.
The musical version of “White Christmas” was first staged in San Francisco in 2004 and fleshes out some of the minor characters in the movie, Starr said.
The score includes classic hits from the movie such as “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “Happy Holidays,” “Count Your Blessings,” “Snow” and, of course, “White Christmas.” Some songs were taken out of the stage version while other Berlin songs such as “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” were inserted.
“It’s happy and feel-good music,” Starr said. “It’s like a cup of hot chocolate and something that makes you feel good inside.”
Starr said it has been fun for her, her production team and cast of approximately 25 to play in a time period when women were treated like porcelain dolls and men were a charming mix of man and boy.
And although he knows it is not a realistic portrayal of how things actually were in the ’50s, Ammon said he loves the story because of the sweet spin it puts on life.
“I always thought it was pretty and beautiful the way that people acted .... in the movies at least,” Ammon said.
And in today’s popular culture — with gruesome zombies, serial killers, drug dealers and sparkling vampires run amok — that’s not such a bad thing.
“It has things in it that will make you laugh and cry and make you want to hug your kids,” Starr said.