The Siegel Column

White Christmas: Just Like the One We Used to Know

If ever there was a time to embrace the sentiment in Irving Berlin's White Christmas, the picture postcard musical that just opened at the Marriott Marquis, this is it. The original story in the Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie is, at its core, not that much changed, despite the book credit given to David Ives and Paul Blake. The plot is essentially the same and it's still a story steeped in the theme of loyalty—and right now we're feeling rather loyal to the verities of old-fashioned musical theater. And what could be more old-fashioned than this charming throwback to audience-friendly entertainment?

The plot, even in its original movie format, was always an excuse to trot out Irving Berlin's joyful music. The same is true now, only more so, as the plot's been massaged to allow the interpolation of more Berlin songs from other shows. That just means more joy. We'll assume you already know how the story goes, so that we can jump ahead to say that the show's massive cast, led by the attractive starring quartet of Stephen Bogardus, Jeffry Denman, Kerry O'Malley and Meredith Patterson, sing and dance the musical's familiar songs with charm and style. The vocal highlight features O'Malley wailing "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" while Bogardus meaningfully counters with "How Deep is the Ocean." The dance highlight is a spirited take on "I Love a Piano" with Denman and Patterson leading the show's ensemble in a tap tour de force.

The show is as colorful as a Christmas tree, with lavish set design by Anna Louizos and particularly stunning costumes by Carrie Robbins. The glorious gowns worn by O'Malley and Patterson, and the deliciously gaudy suits worn by Bogardus and Denman (got a load of the green suits, with pink accessories, worn by the guys early in the show—complete with matching green socks and shoes), are ultimately as memorable as the show's music, which is saying a lot!

Finally, give producer Kevin McCollum credit for the courage to face a firing squad of trigger-happy critics, most of them salivating over the opportunity to blast away at a show designed to please someone other than themselves. The irony here that White Christmas, for all its simple charm, represents a daring new challenge to Broadway economics; if it works, it could spearhead some major changes in the way musicals are mounted and marketed on the Great White (Christmas) Way.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas at the Marquis Theatre through January 4, 2009. For schedule and tickets, visit Ticketmaster.

On the Town was out of sight

The impressively ambitious staged-reading of On The Town that just concluded at City Center combines both the best and the worst of what Encores! has become. That the Leonard Bernstein & Comden & Green show was given a superlative and loving recreation is undoubtedly true. But where Encores!—and especially the show's director John Rando—went wildly wrong, was that they recreated the show without considering what it would look like from a considerable number of seats in the balcony. Simply put, a lot of people in the audience couldn't see a sizeable percentage of the show. How does one put on a production without looking at it from the vantage point of the audience? That's the kind of blunder that undermines the relationship between the company and its constituency at a time when Encores! is doing some of its boldest work.

Which brings us back to On The Town, which featured some breathtaking choreography by Warren Carlyle, delightful performances by the three male leads, Tony Yazbeck, Christian Borle, and Justin Bohon, and a scene-stealing turn by Andrea Martin. Add in some mighty fine singing by Leslie Kritzer as the tart cab driver Hildy, and Jennifer Laura Thompson as Claire de Loone, the woman in search of a primitive man, and the top end of the cast is really strong. The only disappointment was Jessica Lee Goldyn, who was a rather bland Miss Turnstiles.

It was fascinating to see the original show recreated insofar as it pointed out how much tighter the plot became in the later film version. The episodic nature of the story is more readily apparent in the stage production. Nonetheless, the Encores! show was gorgeous and performed with genuine panache.

My Vaudeville Man!: a great vehicle for its two stars

The York Theatre Company has followed its season-opening hit of Enter Laughing with a delightful new musical called My Vaudeville Man! directed by Lynn Taylor-Corbett. This new show with a book by Jeff Hochhauser, music by Bob Johnston and lyrics by Johnston & Hochhauser is a two-hander starring the impressively talented pair of Karen Murphy and Shonn Wiley.

The musical is based on the true-life story of vaudevillian Jack Donahue, inspired by his book "Letters of a Hoofer to His Ma." The letters, in fact, provide the show with its simple but direct structure. The limitations imposed upon the storytelling by using the letters as the means to describe Donahue's career and his relationship with his mother are, in fact, the obstacles that elicit the musical's artfulness. It takes the better part of the first act to establish the world in which this charming musical takes place, but the payoff in the second act is well worth it because the emotional impact in the latter act will surprise you with its unique combination of humor and heartbreak.

From this seemingly innocent story set in the very early years of the twentieth century, you will get a delightful insight into the history of vaudeville along with an increasingly complex understanding of Donahue's resilient mother played by Murphy and her runaway, eccentric-dancer son, played by Wiley.

Johnston's music nicely recreates the era while Hochhauser's lyrics cleverly keep you off-guard, constantly surprising you with their unexpected comic turns. And when Murphy gets hold of some of those second act songs, like "So, The Old Dog Has Come Home" about the return of her drunk husband, she will absolutely break your heart; her work in this show comprises one of this season's most astounding musical theater performances. Her co-star, Shonn Wiley, who also co-choreographed the dance material with Lynn Taylor-Corbett, brings a true innocence to the role of Jack, plus he has a knock 'em dead dance number called "Tap Drunk" that stops the show.

My Vaudeville Man! is a little show with a very big heart.

My Vaudeville Man! at the York Theatre Company, The Theatre at Saint Peter's, 54th Street just east of Lexington Avenue. For more information, visit the York Theatre website.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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