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The Journal Gazette

  • Courtesy Chris Rasor, left, and Michael Nelaborige star in "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," opening Saturday from Civic Theatre.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 11:40 am

Spotlight: Michael Nelaborige, 'White Christmas'

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

If you go

What: "Irving Berlin's White Christmas"

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and Nov. 10, 11, 17 and 18; 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 12; the Nov. 19 matinee is sold out and several other shows have limited seating left.

Where: Arts United Center, 303 E. Main St.

Admission: $30 adults, $25 seniors and $17 ages 23 and younger; 424-5220 or tickets.artstix.org

The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre opens "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" on Saturday.

Based on the classic film, the musical follows two WWII veterans and a pair of singing sisters as they try to save a Vermont lodge. The show includes song and dance numbers, including "White Christmas."

Michael Nelaborige and Chris Rasor play the veterans with Emil Arata Grillo and Darby Bixler as the sisters. Civic's production is directed by Becky Niccum.

Nelaborige answered some questions via email ahead of the show. His responses have been edited.

Q. You've been rehearsing Christmas music for a while now to get ready for the show. Are you starting to get a little burned out on it before the holiday season even starts?

A. Actually, not really. When you look at the songs in the show (there are almost 20, including incidental music), only two of them are holiday themed – the title song and "Happy Holidays." All are classic songs by Irving Berlin, so they're so much fun to sing. I don't get tired of it. It's funny, I think the show title leads people to think of it as predominantly a Christmas show, but the music covers a wide range of things, from "Blue Skies" to "I Love a Piano."

Q. What is your favorite holiday memory?

A. I think I was 5. My mom was holiday shopping at Wolf & Dessauer's department store, and I told Santa I wanted a brown teddy bear with white ears and feet and black eyes (I have no idea why I was so specific about this). This was in the days when customer service was top notch, and the store clerks tried to help my mom find something to fit the description. No luck. Nor at several other stores she visited.

She felt bad but kind of gave up. Then on Christmas Eve, she picked up some dry cleaning, and the cleaners were giving out free teddy bears that completely fit my description. You could not have convinced me there wasn't a Santa Claus if you tried. I still have that bear.

Q. What about this story and music gives it that timeless appeal that still draws audiences?

A. Well, certainly the music.

The composer Jerome Kern said, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music." Cole Porter said, “I don’t know anyone who sits down to write a hit song except Irving Berlin. He can’t help writing hits.” Even today, Berlin's songs (especially holiday ones) are firmly ingrained in the American vernacular. They're still showing up as cover songs by contemporary artists. So, a big part of this show's appeal comes from that. And then there's the fact that the musical was developed from the classic Hollywood movie musical, which is one of those standard family favorites, like "The Wizard of Oz."

Generation to generation, people love the movie so much that they of course want to see the stage version, though, logistically, the plots differ in a number of ways. And, frankly, in today's political climate, I think people enjoy escaping for a while to a time when life seemed so simple, happy and pretty.

Q. Imagine it's Act I, Scene 1 in a musical about a formative moment in your life. What is the setting, what is the first stage direction and what genre is the production?

A. Time: June, 1986

Setting: The dingy basement dressing rooms of the Muncie Civic Theatre, once a third-rate house on the Vaudeville circuit and now home to the community's playhouse. The theatre appears to be frozen in time, something akin to a set for "Sunset Boulevard."

As the lights come up, a show has just ended and Michael is sitting at a dressing table with Gladys Hearne, Muncie Civic's resident costumer and Grand Diva (once a well-known performer in her own right – she was "Mademoiselle Gee Gee," an exotic dancer in Burlesque). Michael is 20-something and slight of build. Gladys is the portrait of a bygone era, wearing a gold lamé turban, heavy eyeliner, highly arched brows, beautifully overdrawn lips colored in Max Factor's Fireball Orange and dressed, contrarily, in a T-shirt, denim overalls and old Keds.

They're sipping cups of the Chock Full 'O Nuts brand coffee that always seemed to be brewing in the basement. As Gladys takes a puff of her cigarette, she looks him straight in the soul and says:

Gladys: You're good, kid. You know it. Now you go out there and you try ... or you'll always wonder if you could have made it.

Obviously, Gladys had a huge impact on me (and many others at Ball State University) when I was struggling with whether I should try the professional theater route. I graduated that August with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications and minors in musical theater and dance. I went on to work almost 15 years professionally and lived solely off that. If it wasn't for Gladys, I wonder sometimes if I would have found the courage to do it. Her autographed "Mademoiselle Gee Gee" photo is always in my dressing room for every show I do.

Q. Aside from memorizing lines, music and staging, what do you do outside of the theater to prepare for a show?

A. If it's a period piece like "White Christmas," I'm really big about researching the time period of a show – learning about styles, mannerisms, culture, anything going on at that time that would form the profile of my character. And also about researching the history of the show and how it developed.

In a case like this or "Beauty and the Beast" that I just finished – where a very popular, well-known movie has been translated into a play (which is not normally the situation) – I'm actually OK watching the movie. The "White Christmas" movie was tailor-made for four very specific stars: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. The stage version was written with more ... let's say "generic" characters, so there's a lot of room to make them your own. And the story line varies considerably (I actually think the stage version makes more sense).

So, I'm certainly not trying to be Bing Crosby, nor should I. But the audience does tend to come with the movie version set in their minds, and you want to make sure you are delivering the proper style and feeling of the original.

cmcmaken@jg.net