Dreaming of a white Christmas? For Houstonians enduring Decembers when it can be 70 degrees one day and 35 the next, even our most trusted local meteorologist can never guarantee snow for the season. Theatre goers, at least, know they can count on an artful blizzard onstage in many holiday shows, and this year, Theatre Under the Stars is going to take its wintery special effects to the next level.
TUTS is using the title of their holiday musical, White Christmas, as a special promise to the audience that snow will not only fall onstage but everywhere and on everyone in the Sarofim Hall theater.
I recently got a sneak peek of the show’s indoor snow storm during a tech rehearsal when I spoke with the man in charge of illuminating the winter wonderland. Richard Winkler, the production’s lighting designer, has been working with TUTS for over a decade. Along with his lighting design work on many of their most popular shows, he is also an awarding winning Broadway producer.
TUTS is so committed to its snow that in addition to the 10 snow machines, “We have augmented those with other snow machines because our theatre is so large."
Winkler calls White Christmas “an absolutely delightfully charming version of the wonderful Irving Berlin musical from my youth.”
White Christmas is the theatrical version of the classic Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye film of the same name, not to be confused with the classic Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire film Holiday Inn where the Irving Berlin song “White Christmas” originated. White Christmas, the stage musical, tells the story of two World War II army buddies, turned famous entertainers, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis. The song and dance duo fall for the singing Haynes sisters while attempting to save the failing Vermont inn owned by their former commanding officer. The inn is close to bankruptcy because an unseasonal heat wave has chased away all the guests.
Will our heroes win the sisters? Will Davis and Wallace’s new musical revue be successful? Will they save the inn? Will snow fall in Vermont? For a holiday show that Winkler describes with words like “old fashioned” and “charming,” the chances are good for a happy ending the keeps the promise of the title.
The play harkens back to its golden age of movie musical beginnings with a story of love, loyalty, and tap dancing. This traditional type of story call for a traditional way of telling it. Winkler explains,
It’s not a very complicated show technically. It’s an old fashioned musical which requires old fashioned scenery. . .as a designer you are responsible for rendering the author’s work and if the author has written an old fashioned musical, no matter what, if you’re going to do a traditional production of it, you need to render it in an old fashioned way.”
TUTS last produced the show in 2008 and while the set and costumes will be the same the new director, Bruce Lumpkin, and choreographer, Mary Jane Houdina, have made some changes, so audiences who fondly remember the 2008 production can look forward to a familiar show with a few surprises. They can also look forward to a special, special effect at the end.
Two types of snow
The show is owned by TUTS and two other theatre companies, and snow is such an intrinsic part of the production that, along with the sets and costumes, 10 snow machines are included in the whole White Christmas package. There are actually two different types of snow in the production, the stage snow which is a solid material that is used and recycled after each performance, and the snow the audience will experience.
TUTS is so committed to its snow that in addition to the snow machines, “We have augmented those with other snow machines because our theatre is so large and because we wanted to include not only the ground floor but the mezzanine and the balcony. So we have to have snow machines all over,” says Winkler.
“It’s really interesting because I designed this three years ago as well and I remember, I got to tell you, when the snow comes on the entire audience just goes wild."
And what exactly is this snow made of? Well, the production would like to keep some of its secrets, so I’ll only reveal that one of ingredients in the snow that falls in Hobby Center is the same as real snow and another might help the audience leave the theatre a little cleaner than when they arrive.
After taking part in this mini-course on theatrical snow making and learning some of the tricks these stage crew magicians use to create their wintery illusion, I found my new knowledge didn’t lessen the experience at all. Once Richard Winkler called forth the snow, I turned into a wonder-eyed eight-year-old. For a few moments, my brain could only manage the following observation: Awww, snow. Pretty.
And I wasn’t the only one rendered into a child-like state by the indoor snowstorm. Even the experienced stage crew paused in their work for a few minutes to quietly watch it fall or take photos.
Winkler has noted a similar reaction from audiences, observing: “It’s really interesting because I designed this three years ago as well and I remember, I got to tell you, when the snow comes on the entire audience just goes wild. It’s wonderful to be part of the creative staff that affects an audience as much as this does. And the show is delightful, but the addition of the snow, because it’s so unusual, somehow just sweeps everybody up. It just grabs everyone and makes them become a part of the whole emotional experience.”
The TUTS production of White Christmas is at the Hobby Center through Dec. 18. For more information, click here.