BWW Reviews: WHITE CHRISTMAS: Nostalgic, Sentimental, Romantic AND an Irving Berlin Score
Back to the Article
by Jeffrey Ellis
You would have to be some sort of modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge-mean and spiteful, unfeeling and cold-not to be totally captivated by Irving Berlin's White Christmas, the exuberant stage musical based on the classic holiday film that many hold dear and now onstage at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall through Sunday, November 18.
Directed by Norb Joerder, it's pure escapism this colorful and glittering stage adaptation of the Paramount Pictures film-originally written for the screen by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, and starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen-that is one of the most enduring holiday-themed movie musicals ever made.
Featuring a resplendent score by Irving Berlin, the quintessentially American tunesmith, the stage show is a lighter than air musical confection, sweetly sentimental and wonderfully nostalgic, featuring a book by David Ives and Paul Blake. In short, it's like a trip back in time to period when love triumphs over the most unlikely of obstacles, when boy met girl, boy fell in love with girl, girl and boy put on a show, boy and girl almost break up only to get back together again. It's Americana at its best, set to that glorious Berlin-crafted score that will have you singing along and tapping your feet until Santa shimmies down your chimney on December 24 (and very possibly thereafter).
Starring James Clow and honorary Nashvillian David Elder (he got his start at Opryland USA and is fondly remembered by friends and fans here) in the roles originally played by Crosby and Kaye, with Stefanie Morse in the Clooney role and Mara Davi taking over for the wasp-waisted Vera-Ellen, this production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas, which originated at Atlanta's Theatre of The Stars, tells the story of Bob Wallace (Clow) and Phil Davis (Elder), two song-and-dance men who first met as soldiers in World War II.
The relevance of the story, which remains timeless and heartfelt even in the 21st century, is apparent at the very outset of the show: When the action opens, we're in war-torn Europe on Christmas Eve 1944, and Wallace and Davis are performing for soldiers as a battle rages nearby, offering a sense of camaraderie and celebration for the beleaguered American battalions. At the end of the show, the 151st Division's commanding general, the gruff but beloved General Henry Waverly (Joseph Costa) announces he is being sent stateside for an operation to remove shrapnel from his, umm, leg.
Action fast-forwards and we're in New York City in December 1954 and Wallace and Davis have honed their act sharply in the intervening 10 years, headlining a guest appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. After some crafty machinations by one-half of the Haynes sisters' nightclub act (that darn Judy!), the men find themselves at Jimmy's Backroom, watching the two girls perform one of the most famous songs from the movie's catalogue of tunes: "Sisters." Before long they are on a train, headed to Vermont (which features a stunning recreation and reimaging, actually, of "Snow" which becomes a rousing group number that captures an unbridled sense of frigid adventure).
As in the movie, however, the temperature's in the high 70s, there's no snow on the ski trails and now-retired General Waverly's Columbia Inn is struggling to keep its doors open. In one of those fortuitous turns of events that only happen in plays and movies and musicals and real life, Wallace and Davis seize the opportunity to turn the innkeeper's fortunes around with a hearty cry of "hey, kids, let's put on a show!"
It's that sense of bonhomie and enthusiasm that is both off-putting and engaging at the same time. You have to suspend disbelief, you have to turn yourself over to your better angels, you have to let go of the worries of your day, the grind that has left you almost pulverized…You have to let yourself go and let the joy and spectacle that's the whole White Christmas experience wash over you and put you in the holiday spirit that you so badly need in your heart and in your life.
The plot's contrivances are silly, the story is slight and the character development is virtually non-existent. But who the hell cares? Irving Berlin's White Christmas is beautifully designed, imaginatively staged, amazingly choreographed and danced and, in case you haven't figured it out yet, it has that Irving Berlin score that will send you out onto Deaderick and Sixth, singing at the top of your lungs.
Tall and handsome, Clow has a rather courtly air about him as Bob Davis, his beautiful voice casting aside any doubts that anyone other than Der Bingle could handle the signature tunes. The charming and good-looking Elder proves himself adept at comedy, delivering his laugh lines with total confidence, and putting on a display of his dancing talents that will leave you breathless.
Elder and Davi's duets are exquisitely staged, recalling images of all the great dance teams who have come before them. They are light on their feet and fully committed to every move they make onstage. Alone, they might be worth the price of admission if it weren't for the Act One closing-"Blue Skies"-that's another full-out, all-singing, all-dancing production number. And then there's Act Two's beautifully mounted "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me/How Deep is the Ocean"-set in a posh Manhattan supper club, awash in black and white Art Deco-influenced visuals-stirringly performed by Morse and Clow.
Davi is gorgeous in her blond wig, her lithe body showing off Skinner's choreography with elan. Morse, whose wearing peep toe shoes in Vermont in late December (I realize drag knows no season, but seriously?), is the very picture of a 1954 number of Vogue magazine, embodying the emerging modern woman who first made her imprint in that post-war era.
In addition to Costas, who plays General Waverly with an earnest sincerity, the supporting cast includes the delightful Ruth Williamson as the clarion-voiced Martha Watson (who looks ever so glamorous in the finale), the woman who wields the real power at the Columbia Inn, and Tony Lawson as Ed Sullivan Show producer Ralph Sheldrake. And Abby Church and Kelly Sheehan are winningly cast as showgirls Rita and Rhoda.
Many of the film's songs are featured in the stage show-including "Happy Holiday," "Sisters," "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," "Snow," "The Old Man," "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" and the title tune (which, lord help me, can have me puddling up like nobody's business in no time flat)-along with some of Berlin's most beloved tunes interpolated from other shows, including "Blue Skies" (which ranks right up there with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in my estimation), "I Love a Piano" (which is done as one of the most entertaining tap numbers you've ever seen-give me a chorus line of pretty boys smiling broadly, gorgeous girls in glamorous costumes tap dancing their hearts out and that's what I hope my heaven will be like) and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" (which comes almost as a surprise during curtain calls, regardless of its place in the playbill list of musical numbers, and once again totally delights you with Randy Skinner's expert choreography and the unfettered joy of the entire company).
Certainly, Berlin's music is from a different time and place in the development of American musical theater, but it's such an important and vital part of the history of the art form that you cannot call yourself a fan of musical theater and not acknowledge it. It's quintessentially American, a blending of Tin Pan Alley, operetta, minstrel show, vaudeville and everything else that the theater has been since Thespis first stepped before the footlights. Under the baton of conductor/musical director Michael Horsley, the 19-member orchestra performs the score with exceptional musicianship, paying tribute to Berlin and providing the audience with a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Kenneth Foy's scenic design is simplified from earlier touring productions of Irving Berlin's White Christmas, based upon Anna Louizos' set design for the Broadway production. Carrie Robbins' costumes are beautifully designed evocations of period fashions, with the influence of Christian Dior and his New Look evident throughout the sumptuous wardrobe (her color palette is theatrically appealing and some of her costumes are almost winkingly, tongue-in-cheekingly cute, particularly those red-and-white Fair Isle sweaters sported by the cute chorus boys in the finale and Davi and Morse's gorgeous gowns). Ken Billington's lighting design adds warmth, while directing the audience's attention, while Peter Fitzgerald's sound design worked harmoniously in the expansive Jackson Hall.