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Chicago by John Olson

Irving Berlin's White Christmas
Bank of America Theatre

Also see John's review of Striking 12

White Christmas
Shannon M. O'Bryan and Denis Lambert
In this sort of a film to stage adaptation, the question is always "why"? Why do we need a stage adaptation of a movie musical that is aired liberally on cable each year or even shown on a few big screens in theaters here and there? The commercial appeal of such a well-known title is obvious, but the creative team of this production has come up with a number of pleasures that make it a fun evening. On the final stop of a four-city tour, this re-creation of the Broadway musical is a great-looking and spirited tribute to the Irving Berlin songbook and an earlier era of Broadway musicals.

After a traditional overture of Berlin standards and a rather flat re-creation of the World War II scene that opens the film, the show launches into a deliciously retro production number of Berlin's "Let Yourself Go" performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show." With chorus boys sporting slicked-back hair and decked in 1950s business suits and high-kicking chorus girls, it's clear the goal here is to deliver old-fashioned entertainment values. Of course, the leads will never replace audience's memories of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney (though Shannon M. O'Bryan compares quite nicely to Vera-Ellen), but to their credit, they don't really try. The point here is to make the most of the production numbers, pump up the supporting roles and let the leads fade into the background (as much as leads can). For example, the song "Snow," sung in the film by its stars as a quartet, becomes a full company number here.

The four leads—who also include John Scherer in the Bing Crosby role of Bob Wallace, Denis Lambert in the Danny Kaye part of Phil Davis, and Amy Bodnar as Rosemary Clooney's character Betty Haynes—all sing and dance nicely enough. Bodnar and O'Bryan are attractive and play the sweet sister act charmingly and without irony, but Scherer is particularly stiff in the book scenes. Lambert fares a little better. Though he's stuck with some pretty lame jokes about his character's womanizing, he and O'Bryan make a great dance pair in "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" (from the film) and "I Love a Piano," one of several Berlin songs not in the film that are interpolated into this stage version. The adapters chose songs wisely, adding songs that are better known and superior to some of those from the film score that they dropped.

One of the particular delights of this adaptation is the expansion of the role of Martha, General Waverly's housekeeper. Ruth Williamson manages to channel both Ethel Merman (appropriately enough for a Berlin musical) and the iconic Mary Wickes, who played the role in the film. Belting out "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" and joining in with Betty and Judy for the comedy number "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun," she's really the standout performer in this show. Also pumped up is the character of Waverly's granddaughter Susan, here a precocious and obnoxious pre-teen who is stereotypically wise and assertive for her years. If the character as written and directed here reminds you why you hate that sort of character, Mary Peeples (who alternates as Susan with Gianna LePera) may make you forget it with her reprise of "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," showing her to be a mighty mite of a performer in the Andrea McArdle mode.

Erick Devine makes an easy-going and likable General Waverly, and that's an especially good thing since bookwriters David Ives and Paul Blake, in adapting the screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, make the mistake of pushing too hard for laughs with lines that might have even fallen flat in the '50s. Director Norb Joerder amplifies the problem by having his cast play the jokes broadly. The writers and directors would have done better to go for the film's easy-going charm than to attempt a laugh riot, but as long as the cast is singing the Berlin standards and dancing Randy Skinner's snappy and tap-heavy choreography, the show is on pretty solid footing.

Anna Louizo's bright sets, including a realistic lobby of the General's ski lodge along with fanciful sets for the production numbers of the revue-within-a-musical, have been adapted and redesigned for this tour by Kenneth Foy. They're detailed and elaborate but delightfully low-tech, requiring scenes to be played in front of the curtain while set changes are made. Carrie Robbins' costumes combine period detail for the book scenes along with lavish and fanciful wardrobing for the many production numbers. Larry Blank's orchestrations give the 17-piece, wind-heavy orchestra a big-band feeling that's perfect for the numbers.

Though the story is set in 1954, White Christmas, with its slim plot and barely integrated numbers, feels more like a show from the 1930s. It's a good excuse to "let yourself go" and enjoy it.

White Christmas will play the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago, through January 2, 2011. For tickets, visit any Broadway in Chicago ticket office, www.broadwayinchicago.com, call 800-775-2000 or go to any Ticketmaster outlet.


Photo: Tanner Photography

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-- John Olson



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