Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 23, 2008
Irving Berlin's White Christmas Based upon the Paramount Pictures film written for the screen by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank. Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Book by David Ives and Paul Blake. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Choreographer Randy Skinner. Set Design by Anna Louizos. Costume Design by Carrie Robbins. Lighting Design by Ken Billington. Sound Design by Acme Sound Partners. Orchestrations by Larry Blank. Starring Stephen Bogardus, Kerry O’Malley, Jeffry Denman, Meredith Patterson, and Charles Dean, Susan Mansur, Peter Reardon, Cliff Bemis, Sheffield Chastain, Melody Hollis, with Phillip Attmore, Jacob ben Widmar, Sara Brians, Stephen Carrasco, Margot de la Barre, Mary Giattino, Anne Horak, Drew Humphrey, Wendy James, Amy Justman, Matthew Kirk, Sae La Chin, Richie Mastascusa, Jarran Muse, Alessa Neeck, Shannon O’Bryan, Con O’Shea-Creal, Athena Ripka, Kiira Schmidt, Chad Seib, Kelly Sheehan, Katherine Tokarz, Kevin Worley.
Okay, maybe 1934. This all-out adaptation of the charming 1954 Paramount film, which premiered in San Francisco in 2004 and has been remounted annually in other cities since, is so wholly retro that even 54 years aren’t sufficiently removed from the way we live and attend the theatre today. After all, that would put us squarely within the rule of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; and shows such as this one, existing only to give audience an effortless, mindless, and witless good time, are exactly what those two theatrical titans were rebelling against.
Criticizing director Walter Bobbie and librettists David Ives and Paul Blake, who have adapted Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank’s screenplay, for not fashioning even a barely integrated evening of the kind Rodgers and Hammerstein favored is thus beside the point: They weren’t trying to. So if your idea of musical-theatre fun is logical dramatic construction, complex characters, and songs and dances deriving from something other than thin November air, you’re better off spending your time and money at the infinitely more nuanced Grease or Spamalot.
But if you’re capable of viewing this as just another limited-run seasonal spectacle à la Cirque du Soleil’s Wintuk or the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, you’ll probably be able to coerce yourself and your family into having a decent time. It may be black-ice slick, but it judiciously compensates for much of what it so severely lacks with suitably old-fashioned components that only the grinchiest scrooge will be able to resist.
The treasure trove of timeless Berlin tunes helps immeasurably. How can you not love the alternating lilts and jolts of “Happy Holiday,” “Let Yourself Go,” “Sisters,” “I Love a Piano,” and of course the title song? They’re immediate mood-lifters, however they’re presented, but they work their magic even more quickly as sung and danced (to Randy Skinner’s light-as-air wink-and-flap choreography) by the 33-person cast, as orchestrated with gift-wrapped pizzazz by Larry Blank, and as played by Rob Berman’s hot-cocoa-smooth orchestra.
So are the performers, a song-and-dance troupe of hyper-polished panache. Stephen Bogardus, Kerry O’Malley, Jeffry Denman, and Meredith Patterson lead the company; they’re a quartet of easily smiling, well-oiled talents beautifully suited to crooning and tapping the heartfelt songs, and looking properly period in their choice 1950s finery. Charles Dean and Susan Mansur comfortably assume more mature character roles, imparting their authority to (respectively, and obviously) a retired military man and a wisecracking comedy songstress looking to make her big return.
Uh oh. I’ve veered into plot territory, the chief realm of craftsmanship, talent, and taste at which this show does not - remotely - excel. It mostly follows the blueprint of the movie, with entertainment entrepreneurs Bob Wallace (Bogardus) and Phil Davis (Denman) putting on a show (literally in a barn) to save General Henry Waverly (Dean) from bankruptcy when his Vermont inn is besieged by late-December snowlessness. Wallace is also sparring with one half of a sister act, Betty Haynes (O’Malley), whose other half, Judy (Patterson), Phil is interested in for overtly non-professional reasons.
The misunderstandings are legion and contrived, their resolutions are schmaltzy and predictable. Try though they might, the cast can’t sell most of the comedy; it's so cornily gentle these days, the actors don’t know how to say it and audiences don’t know how to hear it - everything comes across as cute rather than funny. Worse, the first scene depicts Christmas on the Western Front frontlines, with General Waverly giving an inspiring but ominous address to his troops, making it hard to start this sparkling-cider show off on the bubbly fizzy note it really needs.
Even in a show that wants to take no chances, you need surprises. Just not dark ones: things that remind you of life, rather than the alternative. And that’s the value of 10-year-old Melody Hollis, who plays General Waverly’s granddaughter Susan. Hollis sweetly struts, charms, and impressively belts her way through a role that in other hands could easily become the saccharine bane of cynical theatregoers everywhere. Hollis is remarkably unaffected and honest for her - or any - age, finding virtue and newness in gags and aww-eliciting moments that would have been pushing the envelope in the 1950s - and not in a good way.
This makes sense, of course - she's at the upper end of the only age group that hasn’t yet heard them all. But Hollis never lets slip any hint of discouragement or, worse, irony: While everything else in White Christmas displays an unhealthy obsession with the past, she’s a refreshing breath of the future.