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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Paper Mill's White Christmas:
Just Like The One You Saw on Broadway
Plus the Sparkle of Lorna Luft

Also see Bob's review of Over the River and Through the Woods

White Christmas
Jacob ben Widmar, Lorna Luft and
Luke Hawkins

After Christmas season Broadway engagements in 2008 and 2009 (and appearances in other major cities), the stage version of Irving Berlin's White Christmas is now happily ensconced at the Paper Mill Playhouse where it will be providing quality family entertainment for the holiday season.

Marc Bruni, who was the stage musical's original Associate Director (Walter Bobbie directed), and original choreographer Randy Skinner are on hand along with seven leading cast members recreating the roles that they played in either or both of the Broadway holiday season engagements. Bruni and Skinner have brought an expertise and enthusiasm to the proceedings which makes this smooth, high stepping White Christmas feel fresh and alive. My only reservation with the direction, and it is a small one indeed, is that the broad and raucous comic interaction of Rita and Rhoda, the chorines with whom Phil canoodles, is a poor fit, and would play to better effect if it were toned down.

The tiptop production is a virtual duplication of the Broadway productions featuring the clever and delightfully colorful scenery designed by Anna Louizos. There is a stunning black and white—with just a slight touch of yellow—setting for a high end supper club in New York which conveys an aura of icy sophistication in stark contrast to the panoply of warm settings otherwise on view. Light and airy, Louizos' scenery moves in and out with a smooth and swift fluidity which is sometimes faster than the eye (note the set changes for Jimmy's Back Room and its delightful production dance number, "The Best Things Happen When You Dance"). Carrie Robbins' equally colorful parade of costumes, lush and often witty, are a show unto themselves.

The sentimental, serviceable book tells of Bob Wallace and Phil Davis (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the film), a successful Broadway song and dance team who, ten years after World War II service, find themselves in the financially threatened Vermont inn of their beloved General where they gather their Broadway colleagues to stage a Christmas Eve show. They also arrange a reunion of their army unit. Their efforts are put forth to save the inn and do their General honor. A pair of singing sisters, Betty and Judy Haynes (Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen in the film), whose employment at the inn has brought Bob and Phil there provide the romantic complications. Songs from the Irving Berlin catalogue along with songs written for the 1954 film have been seamlessly integrated by David Ives and Paul Blake into their stage adaptation.

Tony Yazbeck and Meredith Patterson are absolutely terrific as Phil and Judy. They perform their smooth, flashy dance numbers and comedy routines with aplomb and unerring skill. The chemistry between them is quite remarkable. At or near the top of the production's many highlights is "a show within the show" (song and) dance routine to Berlin's high spirited beauty, "I Love a Piano." Randy Skinner's extended exuberant choreography which repeatedly tops itself, Bruce Pomahac's inventive dance arrangements, and sixteen terrific dancers led by the exceptional Yazbeck and Patterson create the musical comedy joy that make White Christmas a show that will be enjoyed even by those immune to its sentimental charms.

James Clow (Bob) sings most agreeably, but his performance lacks the requisite smooth and easy charm. Jill Paice, who plays opposite him as Betty, sings gorgeously and conveys charm and a welcome crisp intelligence. During a crisis in their relationship, Paice sings a dramatic "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" (on stage at the super club) followed in tandem by the pursuing Clow's skillfully interpreted "How Deep is the Ocean." Beautiful work all the way around with superb vocals, arrangements, and song selection and placement.

Edward James Hyland brings rich detail to his General Henry Waverly investing much humor and genuine feeling into his portrayal. Andie Mechanic as his precocious nine-year-old granddaughter is a most assured and talented young actress who makes the most of her spotlight number.

A special treat of this Paper Mill production is the show-stopping presence of Lorna Luft in the role of Martha Watson, the feisty lady who runs the Columbia Inn for the General, and lovingly cares for him and his granddaughter despite the fact that the General doesn't choose to notice. Frankly, I had no idea that Luft was the consummate stage performer that she is here. Her Martha, who unsurprisingly used to be in show business and wants to perform at the Christmas Eve show, is a sparkling delight throughout. And when Martha gets to strut her stuff, Luft blows the roof off the place with a bit of vibrato, her ever powerful pipes and stage savvy movement, and an irresistible "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." Luft's performance is so strong that this would remain a special moment even without the iconography that goes with being Judy Garland's daughter. For me, this number had the thrill which I wanted but didn't get from "I'm Still Here" in the current Broadway Follies. And in White Christmas, no less.

Watching the film that is the source material for this stage musical is no match for the pleasure of attending Paper Mill's live and alive, song and dance filled, freshly minted production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday-Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday, Sunday 7 pm - Additional Performances Tuesday 12/20 - 7 pm/ No Performance 12/24 7 pm) through December 24, 2011, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.

Irving Berlin's White ChristmasMusic and Lyrics by Irving Berlin; Book by David Ives and Paul Blake; directed by Marc Bruni

Cast
Ralph Sheldrake...............................................Peter Reardon
Bob Wallace........................................................James Clow
Phil Davis........................................................Tony Yazbeck
Gen. Henry Waverly...........................Edward James Hyland
Ed Sullivan Show Announcer/Mike............Anthony Reimer
Rita................................................................Pilar Millhollen
Rhoda...................................................Beth Johnson Nicely
Tessie...................................................Lauren Elaine Taylor
Judy Haynes............................................Meredith Patterson
Betty Haynes............................................................Jill Pace
Cigarette Girl..................................................Kristie Kerwin
Jimmy.......................................................Jacob ben Widmar
Ezekiel Foster/Mr. Snoring Man.........................Cliff Bemis
Mrs. Snoring Man...............................................Beth Glover
Train Conductor...........................................Drew Humphrey
Martha Watson.....................................................Lorna Luft
Susan Waverly.............................................Andie Mechanic
Add'l. Ensemble:
.................Matthew J. Kilgore, Luke Hawkins, Leeds Hill,
Bryan Thomas Hunt, Megan Kelley, Kristyn Pope,
Sara Michelle Reardon, Kelly Skidmore, Anna Aimee White


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


- Bob Rendell



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