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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Irving Berlin's White Christmas
is Better then Ever

Also see Richard's reviews of Splittin' the Raft and Marius

Irving Berlin's White Christmas
Kate Baldwin and Shannon O'Bryan
Irving Berlin's White Christmas returns to San Francisco with a new cast of principals to delight us for the holidays. Variety said it best by calling the musical "a shiny package most audiences will be happy to unwrap." This production is more laid back then last year's premiere. Every scene in this year's production is tightly packed with terrific, brightly staged Irving Berlin numbers. The title is now Irving Berlin's White Christmas as it should be since every one of Berlin's songs comes over like gangbusters from this new cast who have great Broadway experience. The dancers consist of some of the best talent from Broadway and national touring companies, plus some locals who are worthy of a Broadway dancing production. Randy Skinner's choreography, especially in "Blue Skies," is staged like a big MGM musical. "I Love a Piano" is a tap dancer's dream with some of the most energy driven young men you will ever see and the closing number, "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," is a good as it gets.

The plot is based on the Paramount film of 1954, with only slight changes in the script. The "let's put on a show to save pop's farm" theme is still there. Of course, here it is the retired General's Vermont ski farm that needs to be saved by two former members of the General's regiment. The two veterans are the famous song and dance team of Bob Wallace (Graham Rowat) and Phil Davis (Mark Ledbetter). The two become involved with the rising sister act of Betty (Kate Baldwin) and Judy Haynes (Shannon O'Bryan) and involved in the lives of gruff old General Henry Waverly (Charles Dean), his petite young niece Susan (Nichole Bocchi), and Eve Arden type manager Martha Watson (Susan Mansur), who apparently served with the General during the war. Put all of this together with great singing of Berlin's classics and fantastic dancing and you have a top flight old-fashioned holiday musical.

The opening scene of the musical shows the two lead males entertaining the troops during the war with some very corny jokes. I remember I used to laugh at these terrible zingers when I watched USO shows overseas. It does set up the plot. This is an impenitent tribute to the men who fought in World War II yet it does not preach or become corny like some of the films made during and after the war.

Graham Rowat (Dracula, the Musical and Beauty & the Beast on Broadway) as Bob Wallace is very well laid back and plays the role like Bing Crosby did in the Paramount film. He has a great crooning voice when singing "Count Your Blessings" and "Blue Skies." Mark Ledbetter (played opposite Patti LuPone in Blitzstein's opera Regina at Kennedy Center) as his partner Phil Davis plays the role like Danny Kaye in the film version in both his singing and dancing. Phil's love interest, the younger Haynes sister Judy, is well played by Shannon O'Bryan (On the Town, West Side Story). Both Mark and Shannon play the fun couple up to the hilt and run with it, especially in the dance moves that are fun to watch. Kate Baldwin (who was great in Opening Doors at Zankel Hall in New York) as older sister Betty has a wonderful voice, especially in her rendition of "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me." Her duets with Graham in "Count your Blessings" and "How Deep is the Ocean" are stylish. (It is interesting to note these two fine singers married just before starting rehearsals for this production).

Susan Mansur (Memphis) once again plays the Mary Wickes spinster role as the hotel manager with the sassy one liners. She belts out in her Ethel Merman voice the upbeat song "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." Charles Dean comes back from the original cast as General Henry Waverly and gives an effectual speech to the "troops" in the second act. Petite Nicole Bocchi plays the young niece Susan Waverly and gives a nice performance of the reprise of "Let Me Sing And I'm Happy."

The gorgeous set designs by Anna Louizos are still eye catching and reminiscent of those great Betty Grable movies at Fox. Once again the last scene is picture perfect like something out of a Currier and Ives snow scene with "snow" falling down onto the audience at the end. The lighting by Ken Billington also gives the dazzling look of the Fox studio musical and Carrier Robbins' lavish costumes have that wonderful '50s look, especially in the last scene with the heavy red and white reindeer sweaters worn by the cast.

White Christmas is the perfect holiday musical; in fact it could play at any time of the year. There are productions now in Los Angeles and Boston and hopefully those in the New York area will see this charming musical someday.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas runs through December 31st at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St at 8th, San Francisco. For tickets please call Ticketmaster at 415-512-7770 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

The world premier of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's Lestat opens on December 17 at the Curran Theatre and it runs through January 29th prior to its Broadway opening.


Photo: David Allen Studios


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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