Running through Dec. 30, this adaptation of the film classic staring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye boasts beloved Berlin songs such as “Blue Skies,” “Happy Holiday,” “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and the timeless title tune.
In the holiday show, World War II veterans and best pals Bob Wallace and Phil Davis have become partners in a song-and-dance act after returning from overseas. Looking for love, they follow the duo of beautiful singing sisters Betty and Judy Haynes (Whitworth and Portner) to a gig at a lodge in Vermont, only to discover that the nearly bankrupt place where they were hired to perform is owned by their former commander General Waverly.
Among the performers in the cast, Kyle DeFauw (“Clue: The Musical,” “Disney’s Beauty & The Beast”) portrays Bob Wallace, and Bobby Becher (“Disaster!,” “Just Desserts”) plays Phil Davis.
“I’ve always loved ‘White Christmas’; it was a very special movie for me and my family growing up,” Portner — a 2021 graduate of Syracuse University, earning her bachelor’s in musical theater — said Wednesday, noting her grandmother loved musicals. “It was just a movie that always had a special place in my heart. I knew I wanted to do it, but I never thought I’d be playing Judy in a million years.”
“You’re so perfect as Judy,” Whitworth said. Portner thought she was a better singer than dancer growing up in Bucks County, Penn.
“It depends on the show and the role,” Circa director/choreographer Ashley Becher said of needing people who excel at singing, dancing and acting. “For this show, we really lucked out – we have an incredible group of people, who are wonderful, beautiful singers and excellent dancers and bring so much to their characters on stage.
“I feel very fortunate to have the cast we have,” she said. “You’re putting a puzzle together and this puzzle fits together really well. There are no jagged edges to it; it’s pretty seamless.”
Whitworth just loves Christmas and doing holiday shows. She’s directed a two-person musical that she says more theaters should do, called “Another Night Before Christmas.”
A 2013 graduate of Florida State University College of Music, Whitworth’s recent performance credits include Gypsy (Louise), The Wizard of Oz (Wicked Witch of the West), The Sound of Music (Maria), and various roles at Disney World and Universal Orlando. In February, she will return to the role of Mary Poppins for the fourth time, this time at Slow Burn Theatre Company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“You find something you feel like you don’t suck at and let’s do that thing,” Whitworth said Wednesday.
Last holiday season at Timber Lake Playhouse (Mt. Carroll, Ill.), Portner was in the premiere of “What A Wonderful World,” a jukebox musical with new arrangements.
“It was a very unique experience,” she said. Her last show was as a swing in the Off-Broadway “Friends” musical parody, covering all the female roles over six months.
“It was incredible,” Portner said. “I got to go on for all of them multiple times.”
“You say a prayer and hope for the best,” she said. “Sometimes, things go wrong. I made my debut as Phoebe, finding out four hours before. I had no rehearsal prior.”
Recovering from a pandemic
Portner graduated in spring 2021 from Syracuse University and spent her last semester in New York City.
“I look up to her more than anyone else in this world and she’s the most kind and supportive woman,” Portner said. “I’ve been lucky I’ve been able to work consistently.”
Prince is an adjunct professor at Syracuse. “It was the most amazing experience,” Portner said of being in the big city, introduced to many theater luminaries (like composers Tom Kitt and Adam Guettel). “It was very inspiring.”
“It makes me emotional on a daily basis to know that she was somebody who came into my life at a time when the industry was just starting to reopen,” she said. “There was a lot of unknown, a lot of people in my class were afraid of taking a chance and going into this industry. She was just so supportive from day one.”
Broadway had just reopened in fall 2021, and Portner went to see “Wicked,” one of the first musicals to reopen.
“It was a very emotional experience, because at that point, I didn’t know what the industry was going to look like,” she said. “Not only did the industry change, but the world changed.”
Portner decided they were exactly where they were supposed to be. She and Whitworth did many Zoom performances during COVID.
Portner’s other regional credits include “Bring It On” (Muhlenberg Summer Theater), “Amadeus” (Syracuse Stage), and “Beauty and the Beast” (Syracuse Stage).
Whitworth’s first in-person one back was “The Sound of Music” in Ft. Myers, Fla., in fall 2021. She was called back to the Universal theme park in spring 2021, after being furloughed for a year.
Whitworth is used to rehearsing holiday shows before Halloween (Wednesday it was 74 degrees out), plus she lives in Florida. Those shows at theme parks usually open Nov. 1. She’s performed at Disney World (pre-pandemic), and the past seven years has been at Universal Studios Orlando.
Biggest Circa production
Last produced at Circa in 2016, “White Christmas” is being directed by venue veteran Ashley Becher, who previously helmed Circa’s “Seussical” and “Just Desserts” with music direction by area favorite Ron May.
She has had a very full theatrical plate the past month – she’s part-time artistic director for Davenport Junior Theatre; choreographed the new St. Ambrose production of “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (which runs this weekend) as well as Double Threat Studios’ “Pippin” (which was done Halloween weekend). “White Christmas” started rehearsals on Oct. 27 and opens in previews tonight, Nov. 9.
This is easily Becher’s biggest directing assignment at Circa, with a cast of 18, most of whom she’s worked with before.
“It’s an enormous show and I’m so grateful that Denny entrusted me to take it on,” she said of owner/producer Denny Hitchcock. “I have such a wonderful cast supporting it. It’s really been a gift this holiday season as well, able to work on it.”
“I’m feeling a lot of gratitude at this time, this moment of pride for how successful I think it’s going to be and what a really special and sweet show we have created,” Becher said. “I’m humbled to work with such amazing artists and a team really that’s always putting the show first. Everyone wants to make the best show and it’s just been a wonderful experience.”
Becher also grew up loving the 1954 film, which co-starred Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen as the sisters.
“Every year, we’re watching ‘White Christmas’ together as a family, so it has a very special place in my heart,” she said. “It is the epitome of the holidays for me, and I’m excited that my sister is coming to opening night.” Her sister is in the Chicago suburbs.
“Because the movie is so near and dear to my heart, I wanted to give some nods to it, and people that warm feeling of the movie without trying to duplicate it,” Becher said.
“It’s really nice to work with a director who gets so passionate about the specific project and has a clear vision for what they want us to have happen, and have the organization to back it up and make it all happen,” Whitworth said.
“We feel confident in the work because of the confidence she has instilled in us from day one,” Portner added of Becher. “Just the warm and welcoming environment – this is my first show with any of these people.”
She said it’s great to work with classic material, but even more amazing “to work with such incredible people.”
“From day one, it’s been such a special experience,” Portner added.
Though Ashley and Bobby Becher are married and often work together, he wasn’t automatically guaranteed to get a lead role. He had to earn it.
“I think we work well together,” she said. “He had to come audition and go through callbacks.”
The new show includes frequent Circa castmate Tom Walljasper (“Shear Madness,” “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn”) as General Waverly, with additional members of the musical’s ensemble and understudy cast including Grant Brown, Adam Cerny, Marc Christopher, Carys Gleason, Brad Hauskins, Sarah Hayes, Sophia Kilburg, Doug Kutzli, Kiera Lynn, Jeanette Palmer, Shea Pender, Lucy Petersen, Jordan Radis, Elly Rebeka, Quinnie Rodman, Colin Stansky, Savannah Bay Strandin and Tristan Tapscott.
Performances are on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 5:30 p.m., and Wednesday matinées at 1:15 p.m. Pre-show entertainment featuring the theatre’s wait staff, the Bootleggers, will precede all performances.
Tickets are $58.55 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $51.73 for the Wednesday matinées. With the demand for seating, the theater has added selected Thursday evening performances and also additional matinee performances on selected Fridays in December.
For reservations and more information, visit the Circa box office (1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island) or call 309-786-7733 ext. 2. Online reservations are not available at this time.