A stage version of the 1954 film White Christmas premiered in San Francisco in 2004 to great acclaim. Not surprisingly, the show has received numerous productions around the country since then, including a stint on Broadway last holiday season and this one as well. The show now embarks on a national tour, with Cincinnati's Aronoff Center being the second stop. Despite a talented cast, lively choreography, and first-rate songs, this production lacks the sparks needed to overcome the lackluster story and manufactured feel of the show.
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 this musical is by David Ives and Paul Blake, and follows the film's general story, with a good deal of the details altered (including some expanded of supporting character roles). The plot is hokey and 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 a healthy balance 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, plodding, and contrived.
The primary asset of White Christmas is its sparkling 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. "Let Yourself Go," "Blue Skies," "I Love A Piano" and other Berlin songs that weren't in the film or were only heard in brief snippets have been included in the stage version as well, to good effect. As one might expect, Mr. Berlin's classic songs are high quality ones, with snappy melodies and first-class lyrics.
As cynical Bob, Broadway veteran Stephen Bogardus (Falsettos) brings winning charisma, smooth vocals, and an overall professionalism that lay a solid foundation for the rest of the cast. David Elder is a masterful dancer and likewise sings beautifully throughout as Phil. Kerry O'Malley (Betty) provides rich and sultry vocals, and plays the "serious sister" role aptly. Megan Sikora is an appropriately bubbly and cutesy Judy, and dances splendidly throughout. As Martha, Lorna Luft gets lots of laughs and puts her years of theater experience and know-how to good use. As the daughter of Judy Garland, her response to a question in the show about how Martha learned how to sing and dance so well wasn't lost on many in the audience as she replies, "You don't learn that, you're born with it". Barry Flatman is appropriately stern as General Waverly, and Sarah Safer displays talent and stage presence as young Susan. The ensemble does extremely well in support, and executes the many challenging dances with great skill. It's great to see CCM musical theater grad and Dayton native Tory Ross getting lots of laughs as a member of the ensemble as well.
Director Walter Bobbie's work is always suitable, but rarely inspired, and inspiration is really what's needed to overcome the story's many weaknesses and overall slow pace. The choreography by Randy Skinner is brisk, appealing and period appropriate, and he won a Tony nomination for his work. The sets by Anna Louizos are varied, large in number and size, and handsome. The lighting by Ken Billington is professional, and costumes by Carrie Robbins are apt and attractive. With Judy Garland already on the minds of some in the audience, the female costumes for "Blue Skies" brought memories of Garland's outfit in her iconic "Get Happy" performance. On opening night, the sound mix was off, with many lines and lyrics lost behind the band capably led by Michael Horsley.
While those looking for an early start to the holiday season might find something redeeming in the nostalgia that is found in White Christmas, theater enthusiasts will likely feel left out in the cold due to the slow and cheesy story, despite a fine cast and other quality attributes. White Christmas continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through November 22, 2009. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. For more information about the tour, visit www.whitechristmasthemusical.com.