On Monday 19th November East Midlands Theatre reviewers Kathryn McAuley and Phil Lowe enjoyed an exclusive day invite to observe a professional rehearsal for Curve Leicester’s White Christmas. White Christmas is being directed by Curve’s Artistic Director Nikolai Foster and choreographed by Stephen Mear. White Christmas runs at Curve Sun 6th Dec 2018 to Sun 13th Jan 2019.
We arrived just in time to see the cast doing a physical warm up and vocal warm up, after which Nikolai gave East Midlands Theatre a glowing introduction to the cast; describing us as excellent ambassadors and promoters of theatre in the region and, in particular – staunch advocates of Curve Theatre itself and all it does and stands for. An unexpected and proud moment for us! The rehearsal started off with the opening scene of war torn Europe (complete with a grim announcement of the Bombing of Pearl Harbour Dec 7th 1941 on the soundtrack). We also saw the GI troops in battle mode. This, coupled with some clever artistic licence, suddenly turned into GI’s Bob Wallace (Danny Mac) and Phil Davis (Dan Burton) entertaining the troops with ‘Happy Holidays’. They are introduced by Roger Dipper as an energetic and personable Corporal Ralph Sheldrake.
This carried through with a poignant ‘I’m Dreaming of A White Christmas’ by Danny Mac and the cast. Director Nikolai described the song as a fine line between plaintive and sombre. The musical instruments used in rehearsal were upright piano, kazoo and spoon and washboard and we appreciated the lovely comedy timing from the lively optimistic Phil Davis character and the more introvert Bob Wallace. The rehearsal was done in a half lit state presumably to give a more realistic impression of how it might be done on stage. The time frame was Christmas Eve 1941 with the 151st US Infantry Division. The part of General Henry Waverly (Garry Robson) was read in by actor Sion Tudor Owen for this short section in rehearsal.
Next we cut to 1954 and the television studios where we see that Bob Wallace and Phil Davis have now become professional entertainers and have banter that goes back to their army days. Curve’s excellent props department have mocked up a replica CBS television camera. We witness Wallace and Davis launch into a vital version of ‘Let Yourself Go’ which involves a song and dance chorus and morphs into their old song ‘Happy Holidays’.
We spoke to ace choreographer Stephen Mear about the dance style and he said he had based it on the work of MGM choreographer Jack Cole who was known as the Father of Theatrical Jazz Dance. Cole was born in 1911 and died in 1974. Stephen confessed that the style of accentuated jazz – ballet is his favourite and makes creating the dance routines for White Christmas such a pleasure for him.
Irving Berlin’s genius is well demonstrated in this rehearsal with his song ‘Love and the Weather’ that reaches across the stage from Bob and Phil’s dressing room to that of the Haynes sisters Judy (Monique Young) and Betty (Emma Williams). The song’s lyrical notions of ‘Moonlight romances have to take chances, that’s what I learned with the dawn, love and the weather can’t be depended upon…’ are central to the themes of the show. Dan Burton’s excellent and natural comedic style was on a par to that of Danny Kaye.
The rehearsal settee had to be weighted down to stop it from moving about and Nikolai and Stephen asked the cast to go through the scene a few times more just to ‘lock it in’. As always Nikolai directs with a quiet authority and his artistic pedigree is fully respected by all in the room.
He often talks of characters being more ‘present’ in a scene and characters acting as a catalyst for change in the story, either by personality traits or of action/s taken. Or both. He speaks to the cast of strong relationships that are key to the beginning and the importance of developing strong anchor points in the story telling.
We broke for lunch and myself and Kathryn chatted about the experience of being allowed to witness this rehearsal and I passed on Kathryn’s compliments about the emotional beauty of Emma Williams’ singing voice to Emma herself. Emma was grace itself and thanked Kathryn very much given that she was currently singing with a cold.
After lunch Nikolai left the rehearsal room and the floor belonged to choreographer Stephen Mear to do some ‘cleaning up’ of the dance routines.
The White Christmas close harmony song ‘Snow’ was next up for a rehearsal treatment. On the rehearsal floor we see eight railway carriage banquettes that are separable during the routine. There is lots of vocal energy from the cast, some ingenious playing of the song and some clever choreography that uses the whole stage inventively. Stephen Mear suggests to the cast that, although this isn’t a big human dance number its stage definition and actualising has to be clean and sharp for it to work. Additionally, but not exclusively to this number, Stephen said that the ensemble should keep connections with each other and to individuals. Quote of the day is Stephen’s – “If it’s not hurting you are not doing it right!”
‘Blue Skies’ was the next song to be polished by the cast. A laid-back, bluesy-jazz number, in contrast to the more in-your-face musical theatre style of ‘Happy Holidays’. Stephen urged the cast to enter their own private world and be more fluid in their movements, in order to maintain an intimate, even sexy feel. The creation of the blue skies themselves is going to be quite a spectacle, and along with Danny Mac perched atop a moving ladder, this number should have quite an impact.
‘The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing’ is a song which takes the opportunity to include a good number of different dance styles, from the initial four four beat, it moves into a waltz and then introduces a ‘Spanish’ style with elements of flamenco. The music provides a great opportunity to showcase the skills of the choreographer and the dancers. Much more romantic and softer in tone, the dancers worked in couples, but actually the slower speed of this number means even more control is required, and with a series of stunning lifts, this too will be a stunning presentation of what is an iconic scene from the film.
Fascinating throughout the process was the role of the Dance Captain, who had noted every angle of the head, arm position and starting beat for every movement, in order that the dancers could present a clean and uniform effect, whilst the choreographer can concentrate on the wider scale of the dance and achieving the right ‘feel’. Teamwork par excellence.
Written Kathryn McAuley and Phil with grateful thanks to press officer Fiona, Nikolai, Stephen and Curve Leicester for the day.