When the College of the Sequoias theater department opens “White Christmas” Friday in Visalia, it will be be doing two things out of the ordinary: staging a big musical in the fall instead of the spring; and opening a show on Thanksgiving weekend.
In professional theater, Christmas shows often open right after Turkey Day, says Chris Mangels, a COS theater faculty member.
“With families gathered for the holiday weekend and everyone ready to kick off the holiday season, it’s a prime time to give them an ‘event’ to attend,” he says. “Since no one has tried that around here, to our general knowledge, we decided to shoot for the moon and go for it.”
“White Christmas” is a musical adaptation based on the beloved 1954 film starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. It includes 17 songs by Irving Berlin songs including “Blue Skies,” “I Love a Piano,” “How Deep Is the Ocean” and, of course, the title song.
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The COS production stands out for another reason besides the holiday opening. It marks the last show before retirement for co-director and choreographer Linda Amaral, who has been involved in the college’s musical theater program since 1972.
We caught up with Amaral via email to talk about “White Christmas” and her career.
Q: Tell us about the choreography for “White Christmas.”
A: This is your basic old-style tap and musical theatre jazz show … 1950s era with corny and fun movement. The show is a wonderful extravaganza for a choreographer as every number has a big moment.
Q: You choreographed your first show for COS in 1976. What was the show? What are your memories?
A: I was the assistant choreographer as a student to the likes of Vegas choreographers Jack Bunch and Alex Plasschart from 1972 until 1982. I began teaching here at COS in 1976. (Oh my.) The guest choreographers came up from L.A., dumped the material out and went home. I then took it from there. Alex taught me the importance of personality and pizazz and how to just go for it. How I idolized that wonderful man.
Once I graduated and was hired here at COS, the directors wanted me to take the choreography over. I fought it like crazy. I was scared to follow these professionals, but finally, when “Oklahoma” was chosen I excitedly said yes. We had a blast creating that show. Doug Scarbrough was Curly with both Rick Lotenero and Nancy Grissom as young COS students in roles. Carrie Foster Woodson was a student dancer as well (Dream Laurie) and now they have all come back to be in “White Christmas” with me!
Q: What has been the toughest choreographic challenge all these years at COS?
A: The only thing that I think is tough is not having enough dancers. I love the challenge and the experimentation a choreographer goes through creating a mood and environment. I don’t see anything as difficult. I need and love challenges. It is all great fun! I have loved every minute of the process.
Q: Your favorite theatrical moment?
A: So many moments during rehearsals are precious to me. Laughs, tears, the mistakes, the excitement of accomplishments. It’s the people, emotions, and the wonder of how it all comes together. Working with Jean Shewey, George Pappas, Noble Johnson, Paul Jones, Duane Weston, James McDonnell, Steve La Mar, Chris Mangels, Jeff Seaward, Michael Tackett, and many, many more.
I choreographed and performed the lead role in “Sweet Charity” with my leading men: Steve LaMar, Rick Lotenero, and Doug Scarbrough, in 1993, and it even featured then-student Chris Mangels as Daddy Brubeck, the crazy revival leader. It also had some of my favorite dancers so it is very dear to my heart.
“Fiddler on the Roof,” “Brigadoon,” “Crazy for You” and “Sweeney Todd” also had beautiful moments. “The Phantom of the Opera” has to be my very favorite production, though, because the dancing, the cast, the sets and costumes and total production values were all top notch. We are all very proud of the quality and detail we put into our productions, and that one overdid it.
Q: Anything to add?
A: Last year we did a beautiful production of “The King and I,” and my daughter, Gracie, who has had leads and many dancing parts, returned to be the lead dancer for the ballet “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Her 4-year-old daughter, Harlow, my youngest granddaughter, joined the show as the king’s youngest child (and of course she stole the show). It was very sweet when my family came to the show and we took pictures afterward. I suddenly realized I had the opportunity to take a precious photo of four generations of COS music theater women, as my mom, Gaynor Hardison Mckee, was the lead dancer in the very first COS musical theater production in 1951, “Desert Song.”
I’m excited to retire and hand this role over to the next generation, but I don’t think I’m done with musical theater yet.
- Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday. Runs through Dec. 4.
- College of the Sequoias theater, 915 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia
- www.costheatre.org/tickets, 559-730-3907
- $24, seniors $22, children $20