Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 24, 2009
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. Music Supervisor Rob Berman. 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. Cast: Starring James Clow, Melissa Errico, Tony Yazbeck, Mara Davi, also starring Ruth Williamson, Peter Reardon, Remy Auberjonois, Cliff Bemis, Madeleine Rose Yen, and David Ogden Stiers, with Kelli Barclay, Abby Church, Sara Edwards, Mary Giattino, Chad Harlow, Tori Heinlein, Leah Horowitz, Drew Humphrey, Matthew J. Kilgore, Matthew LaBanca, Jason Luks, Joseph Medeiros, Taryn Molnar, Beth Johnson Nicely, Denise Nolin, Dennis O’Bannion, Con O’Shea-Creal, Kristyn Pope, Kirra Schmidt, Kelly Sheehan, Anna Aimee White, Ryan Worsing, Richard Riaz Yoder.
Yes, I said moving. That the actors this time around are playing for keeps in a way their predecessors didn’t is evident from the opening scene. Performing a Christmas Eve variety show on a World War II battlefield, Bob Wallace (James Clow) and Phil Davis (Tony Yazbeck) aren’t playing the sun, but rather trying to extract it from a sky of imposing gray. They plow through “Happy Holiday” and an abbreviated “White Christmas,” with a marginally defeated air that acknowledges the likelihood that this will be the last Christmas they see. Their commanding officer, General Henry Waverly (David Ogden Stiers), attempting to cheer his troops to victory, looks so tired and beaten you instantly feel as though he knows the war is already lost.
History tells us something different, of course, and it’s only a minute later in theatre time, when the calendar has jogged forward to 1954 and Bob and Phil are headliners on The Ed Sullivan Show, that everyone else learns it as well. But just that initial change of focus is enough to unfurl events in a very different way.
Because you believe that General Waverly rescued Bob, Phil, and indeed the entire American Army from an inevitable defeat at the hands of the Nazis, the debt Bob and Phil feel obligated to repay - by saving the General’s Vermont inn with a makeshift Christmas show when it doesn’t snow that year - becomes much more urgent. The fire the general inspires in everyone - including his wisecracking, protecting, Merman-esque manager at the inn, Martha Watson (Ruth Williamson) - kicks up enough heat to make you care whether Bob and Phil’s gambit will succeed over both the weather and common sense.
That director Walter Bobbie has helped his cast unlock all these colors in David Ives and Paul Blake’s unimpressive adaptation of the 1954 film is all the more amazing because almost none of them were on display last year. It is, however, an object lesson in how enough little changes can have a major impact. The most significant prevailing alteration has been the injection of exhaustion, and it’s paradoxically energized the parts of the production that most needed them: the ones without stage-filling tap dancing.
The casting of Stiers, who elevates authoritative wooden weariness to an art form, adds great complexity to General Waverly, and explains much of what the book omits about how he came to be where he is. Clow, a top-flight baritone crooner who’s a flawless vocal match for the score, and Yazbeck, a born musical-comedy man, wage truly fascinating battles as they either embrace or reject the apathy that’s trying to consume Bob and Phil. Even Errico and Davi, in roles that are written as little more than shallow eye- and ear-candy, seem to appreciate the stakes of these two women who are putting more than just their careers on the line.
It’s refreshing that the tortured humanity of the central characters is now treated with respect as grandiose as that accorded Anna Louizos’s elaborate and colorful sets, Carrie Robbins’s suave costumes, Ken Billington’s warm lighting, and Randy Skinner’s frenetic (sometimes too much so) choreography. And, of course, Berlin’s score, juicily orchestrated by Larry Blank and conducted by Steven Freeman.
Even here, there are fresh nuances. Phil and Judy’s ballroom spot, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” takes on a pleasant cloud-stepping lightness when performed by two heavy souls who are determined to hide their emotional weight. Martha, Bob, and Phil’s supposedly comic “What Do You Do With a General?” is a deceptively melancholy statement about how even the boldest American heroes eventually fade. And “Count Your Blessings” and “Blue Skies,” both at the end of Act I, play like vital bookends of Bob’s ever-evolving life philosophy.
There are more traditional pleasures, too, such as “Let Yourself Go,” “Love and the Weather,” “Sisters,” “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (which the big-voiced Williamson more than lives up to), and the “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” finale. And the sophisticatedly gorgeous Errico has rarely been better than here, singing a surprisingly seismic rendition of the torchy “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” that suggests Betty’s life has been as tragic as Bob’s in its own way.
But when one of the most memorable numbers is “We’ll Follow the Old Man,” a marching song sung largely by an offstage male ensemble, the usual rules are obviously not in force. The soldiers’ devotion to the man who led them and their country out of the dark and into the light is palpable, making the show’s goal seem one less about providing feel-good holiday fare than about firmly correcting of history. It’s a highly memorable moment that shouldn’t be one in a show that shouldn’t have one. Yet it, like the other reconfigurations of this year’s production, helps this White Christmas become something no amount of snow will make you easily forget.