Based on the classic holiday film starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, the newish stage version, with Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank's screenplay adapted by Paul Blake and David Ives, has a number of added Berlin songs and modified characters. After a long and stumbling development process, the 2004 world premiere of this stage version was a well received lavish production with a six-week run in San Francisco featuring Brian d'Arcy James, Jeffry Denman, Anastasia Barzee and Meredith Patterson. With the large group choreography, featuring a lot of tap, the show in this conception calls for Busby Berkely treatment, which the CLO just cannot deliver within its resources for the ubiquitous brief run. Not that they have skimped on casting - a very talented group of actor-singers do a commendable job with the material.
The familiar plot involves war buddies, now song and dance stars, Bob Wallace (George Dvorsky) and Phil Davis (Ian Knauer) as they follow two girl singers, Betty (Christina Saffran Ashford) and Judy Haynes (Danette Holden), to their holiday gig in Vermont. Bob and Phil find the inn where the girls are to perform is owned by their former wartime leader, the gruff and tough General Waverly (Stacy Keach). What they don't find is snow, and the inn is about to go under due to lack of business. So, in traditional musical film fashion, the boys and girls put together a show (as a surprise, of course) to get the General on his feet. Of course, after a few hitches, their efforts result in love as well as the meteorological substance described in the show's title.
Winning and likeable Dvorsky and Knauer, veteran CLO performers, are cast well as cynical Bob and gadabout Phil, respectively. They both sing very well and Knauer is a superb, loose-limbed dancer (the "Blue Skies" production number is a much more natural fit for Knauer than Dvorsky, whose character is featured). They have good chemistry with youthful Ashford and Holden, two skillful singer-dancers who deliver a delightful "Sisters". Ashford vocally nails the nightclub-set torch song "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me," even though Clooney's screen rendition isn't far from memory, but she incorporates some odd gesturing and loses us when the song segues into a maudlin "How Deep Is the Ocean" by Dvorsky's Bob from a nearby table. This is one of several moments that begs the question of why did they add so many songs, great songs they may be, which stretch the light but compact original story.
Keach serves competently in his role as the General, and Alix Korey pulls extra duty in the pumped-up role of inn manager and the General's caretaker, Martha Watson. Martha is now a frustrated former performer who belts like Merman, which Korey does with verve on "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." The minor cast and ensemble do what they can to support the leads here, but most large dance numbers scream "more" (more dancers, more lavish sets, better costumes, more rehearsal). On opening night, there was little polish in the tap numbers, which just looks messy. At the end, when we should feel chills as the show's supporters, comprised of General Waverly's former troops and their families, are revealed to the General, there are only four people on stage and we must imagine the touching scene that brings him to tears. The gathering of the entire cast on stage to sing the title song (followed by "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," as snow sprinkles in the window behind them, comes close to stirring some holiday sentimentality, but not quite.
A real high point of the evening is the musical work by Musical Director Tom Helm and the superb orchestra, sounding more lush than ever, with the gorgeous Berlin tunes.
Irving Berlin's White Christmas continues at the Benedum Center through July 15. Schedule and ticket information is available at PittsburghCLO.org or by calling 412-456-6666.