In Fred's Steps: Jeffry Denman Idolized Astaire-Then One Clay He Heard about White Christmas

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Jeffry Denman has a framed airplane ticket, and it's not because he's an airline buff or because he got a celebrity to autograph it at the airport. It's because even though he was unemployed, broke, and in debt, he bought that cross-country ticket to get himself from New York to a Los Angeles audition. The audition won him the dance lead in Irving Berlin's White Christmas, which he's played across the country since 2004. And this holiday season, he's landing with it on Broadway, playing the role first created in the movies by his idol, Fred Astaire, and later by another master of movement, Danny Kaye.

For those not up on their pop music ancient history, "White Christmas," one of a handful of songs that most Americans can sing from beginning to end, was written by Irving Berlin and performed by Bing Crosby in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. Crosby and Astaire played two thirds of a nightclub act competing for the affections of their partner, who stays in showbiz with the Astaire character while Crosby buys a farm in New England. The movie was a hit, the title was appropriated for a hotel chain, and the song went on to become the best-selling single of all time. Twelve years later, Michael Curtiz directed a sequel of sorts, White Christmas, with Crosby repeating his role and Kaye replacing Astaire.

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For the stage version, directed by musical theater veteran Walter Bobbie and choreographed by tap maestro Randy Skinner, David Ives and Paul Blake borrowed from the plots of both movies and inserted Berlin songs that were not in either one. Voila: a seasonal theater attraction bursting with big tap numbers, classic songs, and that most endangered of musical-theater species, star turns for a brilliant song-and-dance man.

Enter Jeffry Denman, who had been immersed in the work of Astaire for years, from the day he got sick, stayed home from school, and, on the advice of his teacher and mentor, watched Astaire in the 1937 film Damsel in Distress on television. "From that moment," he says, "that was pretty much who I wanted to be."

In the new White Christmas, he gets the chance. Lean and dapper, with a clean line and natural elegance, he exudes an easy charm, as if channeling Astaire and all those Hollywood dance stars who came after. His dancing partner in the show, Meredith Patterson, is also a student of old musicals. "We quickly found out that we were absolutely made to perform together onstage," he says. "We both love Ginger Rogers and Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller. It's where we live."

It's not where Denman started. That would be Buffalo, New York, 38 years ago. He discovered his love of the stage at 13, when he did a small role in a school production of Pippin. With the same determination he would later show in pursuing White Christmas, he pulled up his grades so he could attend the Catholic high school where he'd been blown away by a performance of Godspell. He got into the school's swing choir, and one day was pulled out to do a solo. …