Monday, December 19, 2016

'Irving Berlin's White Christmas' Is Colorful, Lively, And Predictable

This review originally appeared on

The touring company of Irving Berlin's White Christmas has returned to San Francisco for a ten day run through December 24th, at the Golden Gate Theater. It's a production that's colorful and lively, if a little too traditional.

The show is based on the classic 1954 movie White Christmas, which starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. The story is altered a bit, and the production filled out with classic Irving Berlin songs not in the original film, such as "I Love a Piano" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm". (Some songs seen in the original film have been axed, like the unfortunately named "Minstrel Number.")

Like the film, the show opens in 1944, somewhere in Europe, as the duo of Wallace and Davis sing White Christmas to their fellow troops. The show then jumps ahead 10 years, with the duo now world famous, performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sean Montgomery plays Bob Wallace, the Bing Crosby role, and Jeremy Benton is Phil Davis, the Danny Kaye role.

Davis is written as a total horndog, though Benton plays him as though women are not the first thing on this guy's mind. Still, the plot must follow that Davis is so smitten with the Haynes sister act that he fools his partner into following them to an inn in wintery Vermont, where the promise of a winter wonderland causes an entire train car to sing "Snow."

Kerry Konte plays Betty Haynes, the Rosemary Clooney role. She's a redhead in this version, and she catches the eye of steadfast loner Bob. Meanwhile Judy Haynes (Kelly Sheehan) and Phil are smitten from their first meeting, illustrated in the lovely number, "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," as the duo starts a dance on a dance floor that soon gives way to a stage filled with stars and fog.

Once the foursome makes it to the inn in an unfortunately temperate Vermont, Wallace and Davis learn that the owner is their beloved former Major General Henry Waverly (played by Conrad John Schuck, an actor I immediately recognized from his frequent appearances in the films of Robert Altman), who has fallen on some hard times, not helped by the sudden rash of vacancies due to the lack of snow.

So, in classic musical fashion, the duos decide to Put On a Show, and help raise publicity for the inn and funds for the Major General. The majority of the show is then a sort of show-within-a-show, as the a large cast of dancers and singers are brought in to rehearse for the big Christmas Eve event.

Lorna Luft plays the innkeeper Martha Watson, a role that was a non-musical part in the original movie. It's an expanded version of the character, and she's now a frequent foil of the Major General, as well as a potential love interest. (The closest thing the show has to a bawdy line comes from Watson, but I won't give away what's probably the show's only surprising moment.)

Luft's number "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" is a nice addition to the show's songbook, but I didn't really need to have it reprised at the end by the character of Susan Waverly, the Major General's young niece; it was just a little too cutesy.

For me, the film's biggest problem is just how boring Bing Crosby is in the role of Bob Wallace. Why any woman would be smitten with him is just beyond me. Sean Montgomery has a bit more charisma, but I still didn't feel any real chemistry between him and Kerry Konte's Betty; she's no Rosemary Clooney.

One welcome change the musical makes from the film is in the misunderstanding that drives the second act. While it's still an "idiot plot," where everything would be sorted out in two seconds if the characters would just talk to each other, it's at least a misunderstanding that makes a lot more sense than the one in the movie did.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas is a classic ensemble musical, where the majority of the numbers are performed by a large group of dancers, with choreography I found a tad dull. Still, the show does have a payoff in its closing number, with the entire cast decked out in their red Christmas best, performing "I've Got Your Love to Keep Me Warm," followed by "White Christmas," as snow falls on the stage, (and if you sit close enough, you might get a few flakes in your hair). It was a finale that managed to temper the Scrooge in me, for a little while.

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