Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The stage version of the 1954 film White Christmas has become an often produced musical this time of year, even though it's only been around for eleven years. Cincinnati was one of the stops for the national tour back in 2009, and the show returns to the Aronoff Center in a similar production this holiday season. Like last time, it has a talented cast, lively choreography, and first-rate songs, but again seems to lack enough sparks to overcome the predictable and lackluster story.
White Christmas follows the antics of two World War II veterans (Bob and Phil) who become a famous song-and-dance duo in the 1950s. As they prepare for their new show, they meet a pair of performing sisters (Betty and Judy) and follow them to a mountain lodge in Vermont where the ladies are scheduled to perform. The near-bankrupt lodge turns out to be owned by the men's former general, and they generously initiate a plan to help their old friend and commander avoid financial ruin.
The book for the musical is by David Ives and Paul Blake, and it follows the film's general story, with a number of details altered (including some expansion of supporting character roles). The plot is quite corny, with the main conflict coming from a simple misunderstanding. Other old-fashioned sentiments like "hey, let's put on a show in a barn" abound as well. Even with healthy does of humor, romance, drama and fun, as well as a storyline with a good heart that fits the values and emotions of Christmas, the book is generally unengaging, with very few surprises.
The main asset of White Christmas is its uplifting score by Irving Berlin. The stage version includes most of the songs from the movie, including "Sisters," "Count Your Blessings," "Snow," and the title number. Other Berlin tunes, such as "Let Yourself Go," "Blue Skies," and "I Love a Piano", which weren't in the film or were only heard in brief snippets, have been included in this stage version in fairly seamless fashion. Mr. Berlin's classic songs are high quality ones, with snappy melodies and first-class lyrics.
CCM graduate Sean Montgomery brings strong vocals and an aptly uptight characterization to the cynical, romantically reluctant crooner Bob. Jeremy Benton gives Phil the right amount of happy-go-lucky, comedic appeal, and he dances up a storm. Kerry Conte, another CCM grad, captures the reserved and thoughtful nature of Betty, and displays a sultry and warm singing voice. As Judy, Kelly Sheehan is bubbly and bright, and is also a very gifted dancer. As the innkeeper's assistant Martha, Cincinnati resident and Tony nominee Pamela Myers gets to show off her big voice, comedic ability, and showbiz razzmatazz to great effect. Broadway and TV vet Conrad John Schuck is appropriately stern and proud as General Waverly, while Samantha Penny makes the most of her time in the spotlight and displays fine stage presence as young Susan. The ensemble does extremely well, and executes the many challenging dances with great skill.
The last time the show came through Cincinnati, Randy Skinner served only as the choreographer, but this time he's also responsible for the show's direction. While his dances remain a highlight of the musicalwith brisk, visually appealing, and almost constant movement throughouthis direction is more suitable than inspired, and can't overcome the story's many weaknesses and overall slow pace.
The sets by Anna Louizos are varied, large in number and size, and handsome. The lighting by Ken Billington is professionally rendered, and costumes by Carrie Robbins are apt and attractive. The great sounding band is again led by Michael Horsley.
Despite a fine cast, wonderful dances, and familiar, first-rate songs, the national touring production of White Christmas might leave some theatergoers in the cold due to the slow and predictable storyline. But, for those wishing relive the movie and get into the holiday spirit with some old-fashioned glitz, this show might a good fit.
White Christmas continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through December 6, 2015. For tickets and information, call 800-294-1816 or visit www.cincinnatiarts.org/aronoff-center. For more information about the tour, visit www.whitechristmasthemusical.com.