‘White Christmas’ in Aspen
December 17, 2009
ASPEN – Before Friday’s opening of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, The Musical,” Jayne Gottlieb has a good sense of how far she and her Basalt-based children’s theater company, Jayne Gottlieb Productions, have come in four-plus years.
“White Christmas” has a long run – six nights – at Aspen’s premiere venue – the Wheeler Opera House – during the town’s most glamorous time of year, running right up to Christmas.
“There’s this vibe: We’re in the Wheeler, Christmas week,” she said. “Pressure’s on, I guess. Which is good.”
But Gottlieb, a 30-year-old bundle of energy, may not get the definitive word on where her company stands till the end of the “White Christmas” run. That’s when she’s likely to hear from Marilyn Izdebski, the director of a northern California kids’ theater company, and Gottlieb’s mentor. Between being at the Wheeler for six nights, her first time reaching for a tourist crowd, and having Izdebski in the audience, Gottlieb says it’s a close call which gets her heart beating hardest.
Izdebski knows Gottlieb well as a performer. From ages 8-16, Gottlieb appeared in three shows a year in the Marin County-based Marilyn Izdebski Productions. And Izdebski has some sense of Gottlieb as a stage director/choreographer, and as leader of a theater troupe that Gottlieb modeled on her mentor’s company. Izdebski came to the valley two years ago to see her protege’s production of “Grease” at Basalt Middle School. But for Gottlieb and her team, two years is a dozen or so musicals ago; 2007 might as well be the Vaudeville era.
“Marilyn saw something a long, long, long time ago. ‘Grease,’ in … 2007,” Gottlieb said before rehearsal at the Wheeler one day this past week. “We had microphones for the first time, and they were feeding back like crazy. Our tech was not so good. She was obviously really proud; she was proud of me all the way. But she had a lot of notes, a lot of helpful hints.
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“I think this one should awe her a little bit more.”
Almost as an afterthought, Gottlieb adds that some other special guests – her whole family – will also be in the audience.
As a measure of what kind of attention Izdebski will be paying, she has arranged her visit so that she can see two performances of “White Christmas” – one with each of the casts of leading actors. She will also see orchestration that includes the pre-recording of each instrument, rather than the mere piano accompaniment featured in “Grease.”
Two-thousand-seven can seem like a long, long time ago because Gottlieb has done so much since. Her company has staged a remarkable 14 shows in the interim, including “The Sound of Music” last summer in Basalt’s Arbaney Park, featuring a cast of 85; a dinner theater presentation of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale; “Les Miserables” at Basalt Middle School; a very mature “Chorus Line” on Snowmass Village’s “Fanny Hill”; and, in their Aspen debut, a spectacular “Singin’ in the Rain” at the Wheeler in 2007. On the side, Gottlieb opened her dance and yoga studio, Moxie, and performed in Aspen Community Theatre’s 2008 production of “Chicago.”
Over those years, Gottlieb has gotten busier. But she hasn’t just worked hard, she’s worked smart. She has built an organization that includes parents who are well familiar with the routine, and a corps of teenage actors who also serve as stage managers, assistant choreographers, and aides to the younger performers, who are as young as 6. This past summer, Logan Walters, who moved to the valley after working in children’s theater in Los Angeles, came on board as a co-director and acting coach. The costume design team of Julie Maniscalchi and Colleen Fawley has had plenty of opportunity to sharpen their skills, creating dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of outfits each production.
Gottlieb’s steady music director, Corey Simpson, has brought in his father, Scott Simpson, from Minnesota to play drums for “White Christmas,” and Gottlieb has enlisted a few family members of her own to help – husband Mark Stachowicz to build the sets, and her mother, Jacqui, to help with costumes and a variety of other tasks.
It is, says Gottlieb, a bigger team than her mentor ever had. Big enough that Gottlieb was able to take off Thanksgiving week and head to New York City, where she took dance classes in samba, Broadway jazz and Indian bhangra.
Gottlieb is particularly excited that Izdebski has never presented “White Christmas,” and will be seeing the production with fresh eyes. And on top of that, Gottlieb says that “White Christmas” is a great “Jayne” show, meaning that it plays to her strengths: choreography that includes tap, jazz and modern steps; lots of big song-and-dance scenes.
“So this is maybe the best show for me to show her my talents,” Gottlieb, a former cast member at the defunct Crystal Palace dinner theater, said. “There’s lots of dancing; it’s lighthearted and colorful, a lot of big ‘Wow!’ numbers, and a very silly script.”
Despite “White Christmas” being the highest grossing film of 1954, Gottlieb was never overly wowed about the script. The movie starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as Army buddies who form a song-and-dance team, and become romantically involved with a sister act against the backdrop of a snow-covered Vermont inn that happens to be owned by their Army commander. But the script was re-worked for a 2004 stage production which made it to Broadway in 2008 and was revived this year. It earned a pair of Tony Award nominations, for choreography and orchestration. (The film earned an Academy Award nomination for best original song – though not for the title song, which had been recorded, by Bing Crosby, years earlier. The Oscar-nominated song was “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”)
“A lot of the songs from the movie are dated. But they were replaced with more fun, more up-to-date songs,” Gottlieb said. “And it’s a better script than the movie.”
Gottlieb’s enthusiasm has been contagious – or at least, forced on her cast. The lead dancers, she says, have been rehearsing four days a week – even more rigorous than the usual demanding schedule. But Gottlieb says the cast – including Ben Belinski as Bob Wallace, Kidd Duhe Solomon and Austin Corona sharing the role of Phil Davis, Becca Maniscalchi and Bella Mobilian alternating as Judy Haynes and Alta Millard and Madie Bailey as Betty Haynes – haven’t required much pushing.
“‘White Christmas’ takes place over the holidays, in mountains, with snow,” she said. “That’s getting the kids so excited for the holidays. They sing ‘White Christmas’ and say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s almost Christmas.’ As adults, we sometimes forget about this.”
Actually, Gottlieb and her crew have been taken by the spell of the holidays, the Wheeler, another new production. She and Corey Simpson originally thought they were taking a bit of a breather, since they would be in just one venue, and a professional, predictable indoor one at that, and were only doing one show, not their usual two, this season.
“We started out saying, ‘Oh, one show, one venue, no problem,” Gottlieb said. “And then – four-part harmonies later, tap dances, going more all-out than usual with sets, costumes. We took these kids and said, ‘We’re stepping up the bar; we’re asking more of you.’ We found ourselves with a wonderful monster. This involves everybody’s effort more than ever.”