It’s going to be a homecoming reunion of sorts for guest actors Nick Madsen and Trish Epperson as they return to reprise their roles in “White Christmas” for Crown Uptown Theatre this holiday season.
Madsen, a Colorado native and graduate of Oklahoma City University, played song-and-dance man Bob Wallace opposite Epperson, a Virginia native and graduate of Shenandoah Conservatory, as Betty Haynes, half of a sister song-and-dance act, that launched the grand reopening of Crown Uptown under new ownership and management in 2011.
The two were brought back together by Matthew Ramsey, Crown’s producing artistic director, to help cap and celebrate two successful years that took the longtime dinner theater to the next creative level with regional premieres of cutting-edge shows like “Spring Awakening” and “Next to Normal,” plus unexpected offerings like “Sweeney Todd” and “Cats.”
“White Christmas” (originally titled “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical” but shortened since its 2008 Broadway run) is the stage version conceived by David Ives and Paul Blake based on the beloved 1954 movie starring Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen. As the old movie has become an annual holiday TV tradition, the new stage version has become an annual holiday tradition at the Crown.
But Rumsey, who is directing again, says it won’t be a rerun.
“It will be familiar but not identical. We’re changing up the choreography (with choreographer Gigi Gans) to be bigger and bolder, and we’re changing up the set to make it fresher,” Rumsey said. “We’re keeping the tradition, but adding some surprises so it won’t be deja vu.”
Actually, this third time – opening Thursday and running through Dec. 22 – will be the last for a while, Rumsey said, because he plans to alternate “White Christmas” in coming years with other new holiday fare, such as “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical” and “A Christmas Story: The Musical.”
“Some of our audiences want to see new things, but many like the comfort of tradition for the holiday season because they bring their families. They want to see things they grew up with,” Rumsey said. “We will be alternating shows to try to accommodate all of our audiences.”
“White Christmas” revolves around two war buddies turned performers, Bob and Phil, who become professionally – then romantically – involved with a sister act, Betty and Judy. After some rollicking and sometimes rocky relationships, the four come together to put on a benefit show to help save a Vermont ski resort owned by the guys’ old commanding officer.
The glorious music is by Irving Berlin, although some of the songs were not in the original movie and were included to flesh out the story. Among the standards are “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and, of course, the title tune, which won an Oscar as best song of 1942 in the predecessor movie, “Holiday Inn.”
Playing them will be a 10-piece orchestra under music director James Dobinson, last seen at Crown for “Spring Awakening.”
For Madsen and Epperson, coming back to roles they played here before is both comforting and challenging.
“I’m glad to be back with Trish because of the established chemistry. But I never like to get too comfortable in any role because, as an actor, I know that I can always do more,” Madsen said. “As Bob’s lines and scenes come back to me, I’m seeing things I never thought about two years ago.”
Added Epperson: “The script may be the same but the performances will always be a little different because we are different people now. We’ve have had life experiences in the last two years that make us different.”
Madsen describes Bob as “strong and confident – a man who knows what he wants professionally” but a little “naive in his approach to personal relationships.”
“He has stuff he can learn from everybody – even the ski lodge owner’s young granddaughter,” Madsen said. “I identify with him because he is a performer who knows when to buckle down and just do it.”
For Epperson, Betty is forthright and honest, almost to a fault, and perhaps a little haughty, although she means well. She is acting out of over-protectiveness for her younger sister, Judy. Betty is also more comfortable performing in front of a big, anonymous audience than going beyond small talk in a one-on-one conversation.
“What I like about Betty is that she means what she says. She doesn’t lie. She tells you what she thinks,” Epperson said. “She can be quick to judge, but if she changes her mind, she is happy to say that.”
Playing Bob’s best buddy Phil is Darrin French, a native upstate New Yorker now based in Chicago who is making his Crown debut. Playing Betty’s younger sister, Judy, is New York-based Brittney Morton, last seen at Crown as Jo March in “Little Women.”
“Phil is goofy and fun-loving to Bob’s straight man. But he is always genuine. He never looks for the laugh, but it comes because he’s often the brunt of the joke,” said French, a graduate of Northwestern who has appeared in Chicago productions of “Pal Joey,” “Brigadoon” and “You Never Can Tell.”
“While he is a goofball, Phil is also a pretty confident ladies’ man. He doesn’t want to let his job dictate his life. And he’s the perfect wingman. He’s always looking out for his pal Bob,” French said. “He has a few issues with commitment, but my favorite moment in the show is the number ‘The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing’ when Phil realizes that Judy is his equal.”
Morton agrees that Judy is Phil’s ideal because she is just as fun-loving.
“Judy is a very positive person who is always looking for new opportunities. She’s even a little bold at times, going up to people and introducing herself to get what she wants,” Morton said. “I love her resilient spirit. She doesn’t get knocked down easily.”
Morton says that until a couple of years ago, she would more likely be cast as the reserved sister Betty than the effusive Judy.
“At that time, I was more subdued. But I’ve evolved into more of a Judy through my life experiences,” said Morton, who has gone from Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” to Sandy in “Grease” in regional productions. “It’s fun to play the more outgoing character because I’m comfortable in my own skin.”
Other key players are Ken Gale as Gen. Waverly, the guys’ former commanding officer and owner of the financially troubled ski lodge; Paula Makar and Stephanie Dennis alternating the role of Martha, his innkeeper and receptionist, who is often mistaken – to her horror – for his wife; Brianna Bombardier as his 12-year-old granddaughter, Susan; and Ben Cramer as the inn’s eccentric handyman, Ezekiel.
Ensemble singers/dancers include Luke Johnson, Allison Nock, Emily Pirtle, Austin Stang, Joe Consiglio, Keith Johnson, Kayla Peabody and Erin Sherry.
Set design is by Greg Crane with lights by Dan Harmon, sound by Josh Gordon and costumes by Dora Arbuckle.