By Jenny Neyman
The question isn’t so much why Triumvirate Theatre chose Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as its inaugural show to open its new theater facility, Triumvirate North, so much as how could it have chosen anything else?
It’s the perfect show for many reasons, the first being the season.
“We knew it was going to be December when we got the place open, and doing a Christmas show, people are in a good mood, they’re in the holiday spirit, they want to go see something fun,” said Joe Rizzo, director.
December begs for the coziness of favorite holiday traditions, of which “White Christmas” is certainly one.
“I’m really excited about it. I’ve loved the movie for as long as I can remember,” said Kate Schwarzer, a recent Anchorage transplant who works for and has performed with Anchorage Opera, and studied vocal performance at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She plays Betty Haynes in the show. “When the rights finally became available and it was on Broadway I thought, ‘Oh, I hope I get to do that someday.’ Then they had auditions here so I thought, ‘Sweet!’”
“It’s not only familiar because of the Bing Crosby movie, but ‘White Christmas,’ the song itself, has been recorded more times than any other song in the history of music in America,” Rizzo said. “There are more versions of ‘White Christmas’ than any other song. So it’s incredibly well known.”
With good reason, as it’s an all-around great musical, Rizzo said.
Veterans Bob Wallace (played by Ian McEwen) and Phil Davis (Jonathon Young) have successfully merged into show business after World War II with a popular song-and-dance act. Having seen the enchanting singing sisters Betty (Schwarzer) and Judy (Delana Duncan) Haynes, the boys decide to follow the sisters to their Christmas show, booked at a Vermont lodge. They soon realize the lodge is owned by their former Army commander (played by Robert Peterson), who is struggling to keep the lodge afloat. So Bob and Phil undertake a dual mission — save the lodge while winning the hearts of the Haynes sisters, but it will take a spectacular show to do both.
The heartwarming quotient is enough to melt the feet of snow that miraculously accumulate at the culmination of the story — not that anyone would want to melt it and ruin the scenic ambiance.
“It’s got those songs that we all know and love, and it’s also got a bit of a patriotic tilt to it. They make a point to make the general feel like what he did as a general was important and it has an impact. I come from a background with a military father, so seeing that is very heartwarming to me,” Schwarzer said.
Yet it’s also a funny show, with both physical humor and witty dialogue to balance the sweetness of the story.
“There’s nothing funnier than the two main male leads singing the girls’ song,” Rizzo said, referring to Bob and Phil having to fill in for Judy and Betty in a duet of “Sisters,” complete with singing, dancing and frilly parasols.
“Those guys are hysterical. That part alone is worth the ticket price,” Schwarzer said.
And Schwarzer has thoroughly enjoyed her character.
“She’s a very emotional person. She hates and then she loves, she hates and then she loves — she’s very back and forth. She feels very strongly about Bob, and sometimes it’s strong dislike and sometimes it’s very strong like. It’s fun to play these emotions back and forth,” Schwarzer said.
Working with the other actors has made the experience that much more enjoyable.
“Ian (playing Bob) is just wonderful, he’s a great performer … and Delana playing my sister is just the biggest sweetheart in the world. She’s wonderful and she’s got a wonderful voice and is doing a really great job with the dancing that is a great part of her role. And Jonathan (playing Phil) is a great singer and very funny, he’s well cast,” she said.
Spencer McAuliffe, a lead in several local musicals, plays Ezekiel Foster, the maintenance man at the lodge. Martha Watson, the inn’s housekeeper, played by Laura Ganshow, is tough enough to keep the general’s ship in shape, yet big-hearted enough to soften his at-attention disposition. Britney Storms is Gen. Waverly’s scene-stealing granddaughter, Susan. Ralph Sheldrake, played by Gideon Collver, is another veteran, now TV executive with the “Ed Sullivan Show.” And Brayden Storms plays Mike Naulty, Bob and Phil’s manager, who is dependable as a rock even if barely managing to control his hysteria.
“We have a real cross-section of the community in this show, everybody from Soldotna and Kenai and Nikiski, and all ages, from 5 on up,” Rizzo said. “It was rewarding to see a lot of talented people come out for tryouts. With this talented cast, who knows? Maybe we’ll do an opera night next. I’ve got some singers in that cast.”
One of them being Schwarzer.
“We’re really fortunate to pick up Kate because, man, she’s got a voice that is just angelic, and she has all that training in opera yet she doesn’t try to play it like it’s an opera. It sounds really professional and she can really belt it,” Rizzo said.
Good thing, given the nature of the music. The carols might be the best remembered from the show, but they’re far from representative of the bulk of the music.
“The other neat thing about ‘White Christmas’ is how jazzy it is. You just think about ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Happy Holidays’ and these traditional Christmas songs, but there are a lot of jazzy tunes in the show. It’s fun, and it’s very Broadway. One of the things that attracted me to the show to do for our first musical was listening to the recordings and thinking, ‘Wow, this stuff is pretty great,’” Rizzo said.
A live band, led by Bob Mabrey, will provide music for the show, and Encore Dance Academy is providing dancers for the big musical numbers.
“I couldn’t be happier with those girls. They’re really talented and really sharp and really dedicated to doing what they love to do,” Rizzo said.
The story itself is a good fit for the first to be performed on Triumvirate’s new stage, what with its parallels to the theater’s development — rescuing a building, infusing some art and entertainment into the community and needing the support of audiences to keep things running.
Triumvirate, which opened a performance venue and used bookstore in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna in 2005, wanted the security and flexibility of owning and operating its own space, and set about finding something affordable. Being a wish-and-a-song arts organization, what it could afford was the old North Road Motors, built around 1968, on the highway five minutes north of Kenai.
“We’re talking basically about a tin box being held up up by wishful thinking. There wasn’t two-by-fours or two-by-six walls in the building. It was four-by-fours every 8 feet. In the front part of building there was a window and there was one little four-by-four holding up the entire weight of the window, and it was stuffed with packaging peanuts for insulation,” Rizzo said.
The rear of the building, which now houses the theater, collapsed in the early 1990s, which actually was a boon for Triumvirate because that meant it had been rebuilt.
“You can see the difference between the two. The back end of the building was in much better shape. The front end (which houses the lobby and bathrooms) had to be completely rebuilt from the ground up,” Rizzo said.
Plumbing, heating, electrical — all were completely redone, and the portions of the building that weren’t rebuilt were completely renovated. Much of the remodeling work was done by a Kenai Peninsula Construction Academy class for Nikiski High School students, led by shop teacher Paul Johnson.
“We probably have put somewhere in neighborhood of over $100,000 in grant money, but on top of that we’ve had about 700 hours of volunteer labor, and that’s just with the Nikiski shop class,” Rizzo said.
Professionals donated far more time than for which they were paid, including Harry “Tinker” Ala and Jeff Brown, and were supplemented by the efforts of numerous volunteers.
Once the construction was done, it came time for embellishments — a fireplace in the lobby, a giant white leather lounging couch, chairs covered with the Triumvirate logo, statement lighting fixtures, art deco carpeting and paint colors, retro industrial design touches and original artwork hanging on the walls and incorporated into them. With grants through the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the building boasts an exterior mural representing the history and heritage of the Salamatof area done by James Adcox as an art education program for kids. Sandra Stevens led another youth art class in stained glassmaking, which resulted in a wall piece representing Triumvirate’s logo that hangs in the lobby thanks to metalwork by another Nikiski High teacher, Clyde Swaby.
“And as if it wasn’t enough to make this beautiful stained glass art piece, she decided that she was going to donate three stained glass windows to match it, which now are in the lobby,” Rizzo said.
He couldn’t be happier with how the building turned out, both in design and feel.
“It took six years to take it from a greasy mechanic shop to a performance space where you can enjoy a fine meal and a great show,” Rizzo said. “We’re really, really pleased with the space. It came out just beautifully and, I think, more importantly, the cool thing about Triumvirate North is what it has become for the cast. We get done with rehearsal and the cast just loves to sit around on the white sofa in front of the fireplace, they laugh, they talk, it’s a really comfortable place to be. It’s really nice that the cast feels so at home there so quickly, and I think audiences will, too.”
Provided, not unlike the plot dilemma in “White Christmas,” that people give the place a chance. Rizzo is concerned that being on the north end of Kenai might pose a challenge to drawing audiences from Soldotna and beyond.
“It’s not forever away, it’s just on the other side of Kenai. I think people get the idea it’s like way out in Nikiski and it’s not. It’s five minutes. We’re still pretty close to Kenai,” he said.
“White Christmas” will be performed as a dinner theater, with a turkey dinner meal catered by the Blue Grouse, at 6 p.m. Dec. 13, 14, 20 and 21. Tickets are $39, available at River City Books and the Triumvirate Bookstore in Soldotna, and by calling the Blue Grouse at 283-5600 between 5:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. A matinee performance without a meal will be performed at 2 p.m. Dec. 14 and 21, for $20.
After that, Triumvirate hopes that only the sky limits what can happen in the new facility. Next on the calendar is improv and a Neil Simon play, “Barefoot in the Park,” to be performed by a troupe from Austin, Texas, in February. Longer term, Triumvirate plans to keep its Soldotna facility open, and explore additional performance opportunities at its new location.
“At this point this is all one big experiment. I’m hoping that having this cast in this play is the beginning of some new collaborative relationships. I’m hoping with the partnerships in there and that we’re going to be able to do some cool stuff if we can join forces again and do some other shows,” Rizzo said.
Triumvirate North also will hold an open house from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 14, with free refreshments.
“It’s gorgeous. I was blown away. It’s beautiful, even when I first saw it and the carpet wasn’t in yet and not all the painting was done. It’s a really, really cool theater,” Schwarzer said.
But beyond the bells, windows and whistles, what Triumvirate really hopes is it’s a really, really cool venue to expand the arts on the central peninsula, Rizzo said. With “White Christmas,” it already is, according to Schwarzer.
“I’m really excited about this. This is going to be a fantastic production and I’m ecstatic to be a part of it. It’s really exciting to me to be new in town and be involved with this beautiful, growing theater company,” she said.