To say that Jeremy Benton has an old soul is a fierce understatement.
Or to put it in his own words, “I feel like I was born in the wrong era.”
If you take a look at his resume, you might be surprised that he never had Busby Berkeley as a director. That’s because Benton is old school, but not in that bell bottoms, feathered hair kinda way. His school is older than that. He’s a song and dance man all about sweet feet and tappin’ toes, built in the spirit of those studio driven MGM musical movies.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played Gene Kelly in ‘Singing in the Rain,’” said Benton with a laugh.
His special skill set will be working the hardwood at the Golden Gate Theatre beginning Wednesday, Dec. 14th, when the Irving Berlin classic “White Christmas” spends 10 days in San Francisco, the final show for SHNSF in 2016.
In the show, based on the 1954 film, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis are a couple of army buddies, as well as a song and dance team. They are putting on a show in a Vermont Inn when they meet, and then fall in love with a sister act in the process. With the title song at the forefront of a collection of Berlin’s holiday hits, the musical revisits the old formulaic films featuring stars such as Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.
Benton is driven hard by his passion for the classic crooners. The magic of the campy, simple-plotted morsel of holiday Americana in the form of “White Christmas” is a show he’s been associated with for the past three years.
“I love the American songbook and Irving Berlin, these were the best songs ever written,” said Benton. “The arrangements are so spectacular with huge orchestrations. As a song and dance guy, getting a chance to dance and sing to the best songs ever written is just out of this world.”
For Benton, who plays the Kaye character Phil Davis, this show is right up his alley. He is a throwback performer, a song and dance savant that has carved out a career in classic musical theatre. It all started as a young kid growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, in a house filled with family members who loved films. That love of film manifested itself on Sunday mornings, where old movie marathons would fill the house for hours and hours on end.
One film stood out for Benton – the aforementioned “Singing in the Rain.” And one particular number captured his imagination more than the others – “Moses Supposes.” The speed and skill of the number is a marvel. And for Benton, more than anything else as a little boy, he needed one thing from that number:
“I wanted those shoes, but my mom told me she was not buying shoes if I wasn’t taking lessons,” said Benton.
It’s not like tapping just started to happen, even though he felt he invented it in the front yard. In the family’s pecking order of dance lessons, little sister was first in line. All young Benton was allowed to do was go and wait at the lessons. So he took full advantage, staring through the keyhole at his little sister’s class, all of the girls outfitted with the shoes he craved.
When it was his turn, he faced a tough challenge.
“My dance teacher was very smart, she didn’t let me take any other form of dance unless I was taking ballet,” said Benton. “I took to it, which was odd. I put on the tights and the ballet shoes.
“My teacher and mom reflect back on that time, and I was sort of a natural. Ballet is the basis of all dance, so I really started in ballet companies.”
Just dancing was not enough for Benton – his goal was to be a true, bona fide triple threat on a musical theatre stage. He completed a college degree at Western Kentucky University, and dove into summer stock companies shortly after.
“Once I discovered that there’s an art form where I’m also singing and acting, I thought to myself, I can get used to this.”
And he has. You probably won’t find Benton in “Hamilton,” “Rent” or “Les Miserables” anytime soon. What Benton does is entertain, straight out of the style of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Donald O’Connor. And you know what? He is perfectly fine with that.
“I realized I was never going to be the Greek god good looking guy like that,” said Benton. “I’ve come to embrace my type – a song and dance guy with some boyish charm. I’m not going to be in a Shakespeare play at night and tap dance during the day.
“Luckily my talent seems to live where my heart lives, in an old American songbook.”
Christmas is a time of traditions. And a tradition for many families is to attend a show such “A Christmas Carol” or “The Nutcracker.” So it makes perfect sense that “White Christmas” may have become another family’s tradition, a show that had its world premiere in San Francisco back in 2004.
It’s a possibility that thrills Benton to no end.
“The show is built into a holiday with so many traditions. For someone who personally loves this era, this songbook and this movie, it’s one of the better feelings I’ve had.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHNSF presents “White Christmas”
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Based on the film written for the screen by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank
Directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner
Dec. 14th – 24th
The Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
Tickets range from $45 to $214
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com