By Catey Sullivan
This year at Drury Lane, it's entirely possible to find yourself humming "Happy Holidays" on Halloween. The final day of October marks the third preview performance for the venerable dinner theater's production of '"Irving Berlin's White Christmas." The season of pumpkin spice everything may be in full swing, but everything's coming up Santa, mistletoe and bedecked pine trees at Drury Lane.
Seasonal disconnect aside, "White Christmas" is a red-and-green tinted treasure says Director William Osetek. "Yeah, it's a little weird to be singing 'White Christmas' on Halloween," he says. "On the other hand, the production has some of the most beautiful show tunes ever written. They're great, no matter when you're singing them."
Nearly two dozen other standards are featured in the dance-heavy show, including "Blue Skies," "I Love a Piano" and "Sisters." The production's score is similar to one in the beloved 1954 movie musical starring Danny Kay, Vera-Ellen, Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, but there are differences between the stage and screen versions of the show, Osetek stresses. For one thing, there's a whole lot more Irving Berlin on stage than there was in the show's fim incarnation. "Basically, they crammed in as many Berlin hits as they could fit," says Osetek.
The music tells the story of a retired army general struggling to keep his Vermont ski resort open during a winter with no snow but an avalanche of bills. "Sure, a lot of people will see it through the filter of the movie," says Osetek, "but it's not like (leading lady) Gina Milo and (leading man) Sean Allan Krill will be channeling Rosemary and Bing. That'd be a misstep and so constrictive. The trick is making our show respectful of the movie without mimicking it."
Broadway vets Milo and Krill play Betty and Bob in "White Christmas". She's half of a sister act hired to entertain at the resort. He's half of a duo of Army bros-turned-Broadway-stars who become charmed by the sisters and follow them to Vermont. The plot follows the foursome (the cast also stars Matt Raftery as Bob's best bud Phil and Erika Stephan as Betty's sister Judy) to the resort where holiday-centric rom-com antics ensue. Crucially, the cast also features Alene Robertson as Martha Watson, a brassy, retired vaudeville star who runs the resort switchboard and doesn't hesitate to say precisely what's on her mind. Robertson has that same blunt honesty offstage as well, says Osetek, who first worked with her in a 1989 staging of "Guys and Dolls" at the Drury Lane.
"We've done at least eight shows together. Maybe nine," Robertson said. "I love Bill, but at my age, I just can't remember all the stuff we've done together," says Robertson, "It's actually more difficult working with somebody you know so well. You can't get away with anything. Plus, I never want to disappoint Bill. Not as a friend, not as an artist. I want him to be proud of me."
If Robertson's long and storied theatrical track record is any indication, she's not apt to disappoint anyone. She's a Chicago area favorite, one of a handful of actors who can bring down the house with the arch of an eyebrow or a gimlet-eyed stare. Her distinctive, throaty alto voice sometimes greets patrons calling the theater.
"They let me work the switchboard here when I'm between shows sometimes," she says. "Sometimes I'll try out different voices. Every once in a while, someone will recognize my voice. It's always kind of a kick when that happens."
Robertson's been working on stage since before many in the ensemble were born, but she's not the only tried-and-true Drury Lane star on stage for "White Christmas." Krill and Milo are reuniting after a hilariously successful pairing in Drury Lane's 2011 "Spamalot," when he was Sir Launcelot and she was the Lady of the Lake.
"One of the tough things about 'White Christmas' is that you have two leads who have to fall in love over a three- week rehearsal process. That's difficult to pull off credibly in such a short time," says Osetek, "But with Sean and Gina, they already have a relationship from 'Spamalot.' So, boom, love story. They've got it. "
The show's love story is only part of its appeal, Osetek adds.
"The show actually starts on Christmas, 1944, on a battlefield in World War II," he notes. "The worst possible Christmas you could ever imagine. And then it jumps forward a decade, to this group pf people who are trying to create their own sense of makeshift family.
"What I want with this show is to give people a view of an ideal Christmas, a holiday that's warm and happy and filled with a sense of camaraderie whether or not you're with your actual family. Not everyone can get home at Christmas. Not everyone has a home. Our ultimate goal with this show is to help people celebrate the season, no matter what their circumstances."
And if the celebration means breaking out into Christmas carols on Halloween? So much the better.