With just two stanzas, it's a surprisingly simple song, but the Irving Berlin classic "White Christmas" epitomizes the American ideal of the holiday season.

Alone, the song conjures images of snow covered fields and sleighs while taking the listener back to their youth. But the song, which is the most-recorded Christmas song in history with over 500 cover versions according to American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, also inspired the 1954 movie of the same name starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.

Chances are, you've seen the movie version of "White Christmas." According to John Ludin, director of Montana TheatreWorks, watching the film has become a holiday tradition in many families.

This year, Montana TheatreWorks is bringing the Christmas classic to the stage, with the adaptation "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," which premiered on Broadway in 2008.

"White Chrsitmas," opening today, features World War II army-buddies-turned-entertainers Bob Wallace and Phil Davis (Keith Krutchkoff and Todd Hoberecht) following sisters Betty and Judy Haynes (Sarah Baker and Cheryl Sheedy) to an inn in Pine Tree, Vt., run by their former commanding officer General Waverly (George DeVries). Without snow near Christmas, however, the inn is virtually empty.

Aside from the four main characters, the stage version delves further into roles skimmed in the film, such as Martha Watson, who helps run the inn and the general's granddaughter, Susan Waverly.

There is, of course, a happy ending. And snow.

"It's a great slice of Americana," John Ludin's wife and the play's director Mary Jo Ludin said.

Adapting a film gives the audience preconceived ideas of what the play should look and sound like, but there is also an advantage in that it's familiar.

"They're not going to come if they don't like (the film)," Ludin said.

Mary Jo Ludin first saw "White Christmas" on Broadway and thought it would be a perfect fit for a theater company that likes to bring holiday shows to the Ellen each winter.

"There are not a lot of Christmas shows and actually very few musicals," she said.

"White Christmas" also has themes revolving around family and home, with a multi-generational appeal.

"It's so perfect for us," said John Ludin.

The cast and crew has been working on the production in the evenings and on weekends since the end of September, coordinating the stage action and orchestra with the 22 choreographed musical numbers.

"If any of us thought about the number of hours (we put into it), we're crawl in bed and take a nap," Mary Jo Ludin said.

"It's like having another job" Sheedy said of the more than 20 hours a week she has put into the production.

On stage, Sheedy said the play has the power to envelop an audience in its magic for two hours.

"I do it because I love to transport and audience to someplace happy and loving and beautiful, to make people laugh, make people cry, to get them away from the hum drum," Sheedy said.

A Montana TheatreWorks veteran, Sheedy said she and Baker are already like sisters. Sheedy is a sales director and Baker is a consultant with Mary Kay.

The production is Montana TheatreWorks' largest undertaking to date, with a cast of 24 and a 15-piece orchestra. Plus, the production features numerous sets from the inn to the battlefield designed by Montana State University professor Tom Watson and over 125 costumes designed by Claudia Boddy.

John Ludin said the show is pushing the little theater to its limits, with more set pieces and more drops than any other Montana TheatreWorks performance.

A new sound board was purchased to accommodate the extra microphones on numbers such as "Snow," Sisters," "Blue Skies" and "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep."

Krutchkoff, as Bob Wallace, did voice-over work and had a role on a season of "Oz," but moved to Bozeman with his wife and family from New York City in January. He once wanted the Phil Davis part, for its comedic and slapstick aspects, but said he is more comfortable singing than acting and has warmed up to the role made famous by Crosby.

The stage version of "White Christmas" takes out some of the more dated classics such as "Choreography" and adds other Berlin standards such as "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "I Love a Piano."

"The songs they put in really move the story along," Krutchkoff said.

John Ludin said Krutchkoff walked in and was a perfect fit for the part.

"He sings so beautifully," Ludin said.

Also key to the production are vocal director Laurie Jo Howard, choreographer Shari Watson and another New York transplant, musical director and conductor maestro Frederick Frey who has performed at Carnegie Hall as well as in many of the most prestigious opera houses in Europe.

Company manager Glenda Singer said the attention to detail is what makes each Montana TheatreWorks production special.

"I like to call it Bozeman's Broadway," Singer said.

And how will "White Christmas" play to audiences familiar to the film?

"Oh, it's way better," said Sheedy. "It's everything they know and love and a bunch more."

White Christmas is at The Ellen Theatre through Dec. 23, with shows each Friday, Saturday and Sunday until the week of Christmas, which has shows Wednesday through Friday. All shows are at 7:30 p.m. except Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Reserved tickets are $10, $15, and $18 , plus a $1 Ellen restoration fee and are available online at www.theellentheatre.com and from the box office.

Rachel Hergett may be reached at rhergett@dailychronicle.com or 582-2603.