Home-grown choreographer returns for CMTSJ’s ‘White Christmas’

Dennis O'Bannion, left, performs with the Broadway company of "White Christmas" in 2008. The show plays at CMTSJ through Dec. 15th. (Photo courtesy of CMTSJ)
Dennis O’Bannion, left, performs with the Broadway company of “White Christmas” in 2008. The show plays at CMTSJ through Dec. 15th. (Photo courtesy of CMTSJ)

Here’s a theatrical recipe for success:

  1. Leave home and head to the Big Apple after high school.
  2. Get cast in a Broadway show as a dancer.
  3. Have that show receive a Tony Award nomination for choreography.
  4. Return home with that same choreography and stage it for the company you grew up doing shows with.

Got it?

Prospect High School of Saratoga 2002 alumnus Dennis O’Bannion certainly did. While he was a performer in shows for Children’s Musical Theater San Jose since the age of 16, Broadway was in another city across the country. But in the winter of 2009, Broadway was the place where he reported for work.

“It’s really great and very nice to come home with a job and and see family,” said O’Bannion, a native of Santa Clara. “Most of my family is in the Bay Area, and it’s fun because I get to work with a lot of friends.”

O’Bannion’s Broadway debut was an adaptation of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” the popular 1954 film. The musical adaptation made its premiere in San Francisco back in 2004, with a run of 53 performances on Broadway in late 2008.  The show’s choreographer, Randy Skinner, who was also responsible for the choreography in the 2001 Broadway revival of “42nd Street,” saw his work on “White Christmas” nominated for a best choreography Tony Award.

The Marquee company of Children’s Musical Theater San Jose (performers who are 18 and older) is bringing that same choreography to the Montgomery Theatre beginning Friday, Dec. 6th through the 15th. Directed by CMTSJ’s artistic director Kevin R. Hauge with O’Bannion re-staging Skinner’s signature work, the show is another contributor to the popular holiday entertainment that takes place annually in downtown San Jose this time of year.

The show follows the hijinks of former military men Bob Wallace and Phil Davis as they find success as a song-and-dance tandem after World War II. Along the way, they meet up with gorgeous sister entertainment duo Betty and Judy. Before long, the quartet finds themselves heading to a Vermont lodge to entertain. When they arrive, they find Bob and Phil’s former army commander General Waverly, who is in charge of the lodge, in a bad way. With no snow and unseasonably warm temperatures bringing down the good general’s lodge and ruining the Christmas spirit, a little bit of magic in the finale makes everything whole again.

The film on which the stage musical is based was the top box office moneymaker in 1954. The star power of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney ensured the film’s longevity amongst audiences, with a whole lot of new fans latching onto the stage version.

O’Bannion is certainly one of those fans.

“I think it’s a wonderful adaptation of the movie, and the stage show lives on its own,” said O’Bannion. “Berlin’s music is so iconic and lush, a great score that makes for a very sweet and heartwarming show.”

Working on Broadway is the pinnacle for any theatre performer. And the opportunity to work with a choreographer at the level of Skinner was invaluable.

“Randy is so great because it’s a huge tap show and he is such a stylistic choreographer,” said O’Bannion. “It’s like the early age of Broadway, that Gene Kelly style, which has a wonderful aesthetic. It was wonderful to do a show that style. All the tapping, the great jazz and ballroom, all of those kinds of things were involved.”

O’Bannion certainly had an opportunity to do extremely nuanced choreography in that Broadway production, utilizing multiple dance styles which showcased all of Skinner’s brilliance.

“The opening of Act two is the song ‘I Love a Piano,’ which is almost eight minutes long,” said O’Bannion. “You don’t get a lot of broad shows with huge numbers that length of time, those long epic dance numbers that go through so many transitions.

“As a dancer and an ensemble member, it was very exciting and fulfilling to do.”

The show has been an opportunity for O’Bannion to relive what he considers a “life-changing experience.” As a working performer on the East Coast, he doesn’t get back home often. But the chance to share the work he does with those he grew up with, and in one case, direct someone close to him, has been a great opportunity.

“My sister is in the show, she was there for opening night on Broadway. Now she gets to do (this choreography),” said O’Bannion. “It’s really special and very fulfilling. It gave me a chance to relive so many memories I had a few years ago.”


Children’s Musical Theater San Jose presents Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”
Directed by Kevin R. Hauge
Choreographed by Dennis O’Bannion, based on the original choreography from Randy Skinner
The Montgomery Theatre
271 S. Market Street
San Jose, CA 95113
All seats $30
For tickets, call (408) 288-5437, ext. 336 or visit www.cmtsj.org

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