Also see David's review of Bye Bye Birdie
Arriving on the stage roughly half a century after the box-office bonanza film on which it is based, Irving Berlin's White Christmas is one of the better film to stage transfers on record, and in its first run at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre the show won many hearts on opening night via a canny mixture of great Berlin songs, slick, smart and snazzy staging, and hearty performances.
The cast of White Christmas dreams of "Snow"
David Ives and Paul Blake's plot hews closely to that of the 1954 Paramount film, and is in fact set in 1954. A pair of Army vets turned nightclub stars team up with a sweet-voiced sister act to lure customers back to their old WWII commanding officer's Vermont Inn, which is experiencing a heat wave that's steering snow craving guests away. There isn't much more to the plot than that, and even if you don't know the film, you'll figure out the happy, snowy ending. In any event, the old song and dance is the thing, and a feast of Irving Berlin charmers such as "Sisters," "Snow," "Blue Skies," the title classic and more, are staged to a loving fare-thee-well by co-directors Jamie Rocco and David Armstrong, and performed by an imminently well chosen cast of Seattle and New York talents.
Michael Gruber warbles warmly, dances with ease and keeps the love hate relationship with Christina Saffran Ashford's velvety voiced Betty Haynes percolating nicely. The romantic pair also share an interwoven pairing of "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" and "How Deep is the Ocean," which features Rocco's choreographic coup de grace in which Ashford, singing in a swanky Manhattan nightspot, is encircled by a quartet of male dancers in a moment of sheer movie musical camp nostalgia that has to be seen top be believed. Greg McCormick Allen is totally at home as Gruber's quippy, tap-happy performing partner, and smoothly negotiates his dance duet with Tari Kelly's bubbly Judy Haynes to "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing", as well as leading the splendid "I Love A Piano" production number. Carol Swarbrick's Martha Watson is a delicious amalgamation of every wisecracking housekeeper ever played by either Mary Wickes or Marjorie Main, but unlike either of those cinema stalwarts she sings with a sassy, brassy flair as well, whether it be a rousing solo to "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" or anchoring a tantalizing trio with Ashford and Kelly on the bouncy "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun."
Stephen Godwin cuts a gruff yet sympathetic figure as the restless, retired General Waverly, young Keaton Whittaker is a spunky scene stealer as his granddaughter Susan (played alternately by Olivia Spokoiny), and Clayton Corzatte is an audience favorite as the slow-moving Inn handyman Ezekiel. Other Seattle favorites such as Anthony Curry, Bobbi Kotula and Billie Wildrick convey palpable charm in bit parts, and the entire vivacious ensemble do honor to Mr. Berlin's songs and Mr. Rocco's steps. Musical Director/Conductor James May and an appropriately large orchestra keep the Berlin songs sounding freshly minted.
Anna Louizos' scenic design is quite sumptuous, Carrie Robbins' costume designs are period perfection, and Tom Sturge provides a fine set design. If there is one negative about Irving Berlin's White Christmas, it may be that a few too many lesser Berlin numbers were retained from the film ("What Can You Do With A General?") or added in ("Love and the Weather"), but by the time that white stuff that passes foe snow hits the stage, not to mention most of the audience, you won't really mind a bit.
Irving Berlin's White Christmas runs through December 20 at the 5th Avenue Theatre 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Visit the 5th Avenue's web-site at www.5thavenuetheatre.org for further details.