Jeffry Denman and Brian d'Arcy Jamesin White Christmas
(Photo David Allen)
Jeffry Denman and Brian d'Arcy James
in White Christmas
(Photo David Allen)
Adapting a film musical to the stage is a tricky business, but some movie tuners are so beloved that intrepid individuals accept the challenge of rejiggering them for theatrical presentation in the hope of coming up with something that's artistically and financially rewarding. Hence the version of White Christmas that's now playing at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, where it opened last week to largely rapturous reviews.

Directed by Walter Bobbie, the show features choreography by Randy Skinner, best known for his work on the original Broadway production and the current revival of 42nd Street. (He was dance assistant to Gower Champion for the original and choreographed the revival.) "When I was hired for White Christmas, everyone kept coming up to me and saying, 'Oh, I love that movie,' " says Skinner. "But when I would ask them 'What's your favorite song?' they weren't able to answer. People don't seem to have a lot of specific memories of the film, yet they have very warm feelings about it in general; I'm sure that's tied into the experience of watching it on TV at the holidays with their families."

What does Skinner himself like most about the movie? "I haven't watched it in a long time," he says, "but I certainly remember the performances of Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen. Being a dancer, I also kicked into the production numbers. Irving Berlin is one of my favorite composers because of the tunefulness and simplicity of his songs. He's a very danceable composer, but you normally don't get to work with Berlin's music because the only show of his that's revived frequently is Annie Get Your Gun. That's one of the things that made me so excited when I got the call to do White Christmas. "

This is not the first attempt to bring the 1954 flick to the stage. "I don't know much about the previous adaptation," says Skinner, "except that it was scripted by Paul Blake. It was done at the Muny in St. Louis. On the title page of the program for our show, the book is credited to David Ives and Paul Blake. Putting this together has been a great experience -- really smooth, even though it was a hectic schedule. We didn't have a lot of time to tech the show, so it was nice that everyone was on the same page."

The new White Christmas has several interpolated songs from the Berlin canon, including "Happy Holiday," "Let Yourself Go," "I Love a Piano," and "Blue Skies" (which is only heard in the film as part of a medley). Says Skinner, "We've also added 'How Deep is the Ocean?' for the character Bob Wallace (Brian d'Arcy James) and some other book songs. It was easier to pick the performance numbers, and there are a lot of those in this show because Bob and Phil (Jeffry Denman) are a song-and-dance team." The lovely Haynes sisters -- Betty and Judy -- are respectively played by Anastasia Barzee and Meredith Patterson.

"This creative process has been similar to the reinvention of 42nd Street," says Skinner. "You have to pay tribute to the past in a respectful way, yet you do have to reinvent because you're bringing in new audiences as well as people who've seen the original. But when there are great melodies to work with, it makes my job very easy."

-- M.P.

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Ryan Artzberger in Pericles (Photo Richard Termine)
Ryan Artzberger in Pericles
(Photo Richard Termine)
"I love making pictures," says director Mary Zimmerman, and anyone who has seen her work can attest to that. From the scientific writings of da Vinci to the epic poetry of Ovid, she has dramatized influential texts in Western literature with inventive and indelible stage images, most famously by turning Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre into a swimming pool for Metamorphoses. Regional theatergoers can expect to see more such vibrant staging in her latest project: Pericles at Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre.

Zimmerman describes the texts that attract her as having "gaps" that need to be filled. This fascination has led her to dramatize works not originally written for the theater -- e.g., The Odyssey, The Arabian Nights, and The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Even though Shakespeare wrote Pericles for the stage, the leaps in time and setting (16 years pass in between scenes at one point) present the same challenges as the art of adaptation does.

"I never really look for material," says Zimmerman. "It just sort of happens upon me, or I happen upon it." It might surprise people to hear that she has expressed interest in directing Chekhov in a "straight," realistic style -- "That's not what people think of me for," she admits. On the other hand, film producers have never seemed to know what to think of her. "I can tell you all sorts of Hollywood horror stories," Zimmerman laughs, "every cliché that you can imagine." One exec reportedly asked her if she would direct Journey to the West as a hunt for a magic jewel before she dropped out of the project. One of the reasons she's never directed for film is that the economics make it difficult to maintain creative control. "I'm adamant in doing things just the way I want to do them," Zimmerman asserts. "The way I phrase it is 'doing it the way it wants to be done,' but that is subjective!"

Tell that to Bruce Weber, whose scathing New York Times review of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci accused Zimmerman of competing with the great works of literature. Unlike Antonin Artaud (who famously urged, "Burn the texts"), Zimmerman speaks of literature with passion and reverence: "I've had my nose pressed in a book since I was 5 years old...The reason that I have confidence in doing them is that I know I'm puny compared to them, and that whatever I do is just this one voice joining this enormous chorus that's gone on for a couple of thousand years."

"Theater is devastating," Zimmerman declares. "You are always losing it. If you are a musician, you can record your music, but the theater just evaporates. Even if you remount [a show], you undoubtedly have a few different people in it, you're in a different space, in a different city -- and all of these things really do affect it." The D.C. production of Pericles will not be remounted in New York, but Zimmerman has not ruled out the idea of touring it to other regional theaters.

-- A.K.

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Jeff Key, writer/performer of The Eyes of Babylon
Jeff Key, writer/performer of
The Eyes of Babylon
"It all started with being in Iraq," says Jeff Key, the writer-performer of The Eyes of Babylon, which is currently playing at the Tamarind Theatre in Los Angeles. "I had written a journal there to survive." A lance corporal in the marines, Key pursued a career as a writer and actor prior to joining up in 2000. While stationed in Iraq, he began reading excerpts from his journal aloud to his fellow servicemen. "That was the first incarnation of the show," he states. Yet, he didn't share his journal entries without some trepidation: "I tried not to seem soft or creative or sensitive around Marines because I didn't want people to feel like I was a liability."

Now stateside, Key has not only come out against the war in Iraq but has also come out as a gay man. This past March, he publicly declared his homosexuality on CNN's Paula Zahn Now. At the same time, he sent a letter to his commanding officer making it official that he was letting his sexual orientation be known. In accordance with the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, Key is now in the process of being discharged. "The policy is that if you're out and you're gay, you leave," says Key. "So the problem was solved, and I'll never have to kill a child for oil."

But his decision was not made lightly. "I feel this incredible responsibility to those gay service members who have served with continued dignity," Key says. He did not want it to seem that he was using his homosexuality as an excuse for not fighting but, in the end, he had to do what was right for him: "I'm a spiritual person, so I prayed and waited for answers. All I could hear was, 'Tell the truth and let them do what they will.' The truth is that I'm a gay man and I always have been. For me to lie about that is wrong."

Since coming out, Key has been overwhelmed by the support he's received from his fellow marines; he says that their stories, "if you wrote them, would sound too gay biased or like you're trying to paint too pretty a picture." His show seems to be affecting people in profound ways. "Every night, there are people standing outside my dressing room crying when I get there," he relates. "One night, it was an Iranian girl who had lost family members who are still over there; another night, a Vietnam vet was waiting for me, and I was able to welcome him home in a way that he's never been welcomed home before. He was a 60-year-old man and he was just shaking, holding me, and crying. It was a really beautiful moment."

-- D.B.