White Christmas is a Knockout
Also see Richard's review of Little Shop of Horrors
I have always been of the opinion that Hollywood musicals don’t make good stage musicals since they are different art forms. I cite as examples Singing in the Rain, Gigi and Meet Me in St Louis, all from the MGM lot. (One notable exception is 42nd Street.) I also had certain misgivings when Paramount and the producers first considered transferring this classic holiday musical to the stage. I had worked as an assistant cameraman on the project in 1953-54 and watched the film's development. Originally, the two male stars were to be Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, doing their third Berlin musical. Fred took sick and he was replaced by Donald O’Connor. Then Donald became ill and it looked like White Christmas was jinxed. However, Danny Kaye was between films and he came in and saved the day. The film became the top money maker in 1954.
A stage adaptation tried out at St. Louis' Muny Theatre about four years ago, but nothing came of the project after that run. In 2001, it was announced that the revised White Christmas would open in October at the Savoy Theatre in London. However, during the summer months, there were numerous problems and the show was cancelled. Producers Paul Blake, Dan Markley and Sonny Everett got it all together, with revisions and rewriting by playwright David Ives. I now have to change my opinion, because this creative team has successfully transferred this classic musical film. They have very wisely put in 25 of the Berlin's best songs, and they keep the story moving swiftly along. Nothing is out of place. Some songs from the film were eliminated and probably would not have added much. The additional 20 songs enhance the musical, making it one of the most tuneful productions of the season.
White Christmas' big production numbers of “Blue Skies” and “I Love a Piano” rival the big numbers in 42nd Street. The opening of the second act, with the spectacular old fashioned tap dancing number to “I Love a Piano,” is one of the best I have seen in a long time. Randy Skinner pulls out all the stops, and includes a little from Will Rogers Follies with a second tier raising up about halfway into the number, amid the energy-driven, tap dancing feet of the male dancers. This brings down the house. The “Blue Skies” number that ends the first act comes in a close second. Male and female dancers are decked out in white costumes, wearing white felt hats and carrying white canes, putting out invigorating power. The lovely “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” danced by Jeffry Denman and Meredith Patterson, is pure magic.
The cast of White Christmas is outstanding. Brian d’Arcy James (Tony nominee for Sweet Smell of Success on Broadway) plays Bob Hartman (the Bing Crosby role). He does not copy the famous singer but makes the role his own. He is charming in this part, and his duet with nine-year-old Raquel Castro on “Count Your Blessings” is lovely. Anastasia Barzee (Broadway Urinetown and Jekyll and Hyde) gives a polished performance as Betty Haynes (played in the film by Rosemary Clooney). She is wonderful in her duets with Brian, especially in “Love You Didn’t Do Right by Me which goes into “How Deep Is the Ocean.”
Jeffry Denman (The Producers and Cats on Broadway) and Meredith Patterson (Broadway 42nd Street and The Underpants in Los Angeles) are perfect together as Phil and Judy, especially in their stylish dance numbers. They don’t play the roles for laughs as did Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen. Both are terrific, and Ms. Patterson along with Ms. Barzee does a jazzy rendition of “Sisters.”
There is also a great supporting cast, including Susan Mansur (Memphis at Theatre Works plus Broadway credits) as the wise-cracking hotel manager. She has an Ethel Merman voice that is a standout in “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” Charles Dean (one of the Bay Area’s best actors) plays General Waverly and he gives an effective speech to the “troups” in the second act. Outstanding is young Raquel Castro who plays the General's niece. She is very appealing when she sings the reprise “Let Me Sing and I’ll be Happy.”
Choreographer Randy Skinner has assembled one of the best dancing casts, one that could rival any on Broadway. He has integrated top-flight chorus dancers with great biographies of Broadway and national touring shows, along with local talent. Director Walter Bobbie has managed speedy scene changes from World War II, New York, on the train, Vermont, back to New York and then the final scene. These transitions flow very smoothly.
Sets design by Anna Louizos are gorgeous, and many have that mid-fifties look, as does the main logo on the flat curtain. The last scene is picture perfect, something out of a Courier and Ives snow scene. Don’t rush up the aisle after the cast gets a standing ovation, or you will miss a breathtaking scene to “I Got My Love to Keep me Warm.” The lighting by Ken Billington is pure 20th Century Fox Technicolor and it is dazzling. Carrie Robbins' lavish costumes have a '50s look, especially the heavy wool, red and white sweaters with little red reindeer running across the front in one dance scene.
White Christmas is the perfect holiday musical, and I expect it will be around somewhere during the holidays for years to come (at present, there are no plans to tour the musical, but the producers are hoping other companies will pick up the production for holiday offerings in the future). It’s the uplifting musical that we need in today’s world. White Christmas also generates new appreciation for one of America’s greatest composers, Irving Berlin. Cole Porter said of Berlin, “I don’t know anyone who sits down to write a hit song except Irving Berlin. He can’t help writing hits.”
White Christmas runs at the Curran Theatre through December 26. For performance and ticket information, visit www.whitechristmasthemusical.com.