National Tour Theater Review: IRVING BERLIN’S WHITE CHRISTMAS

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by Tony Frankel on November 30, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE CHRISTMAS
WITH A BETTER SCRIPT

I suppose it’s possible that Irving Berlin’s White Christmas might succeed with audiences. Possible, that is, if they are willing to tolerate a lame, cliché-ridden plot in exchange for large samplings of the Irving Berlin songbook accompanied by tap dancing and snow (and even tap dancing in the snow).

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The musical is an adaptation of a 1954 motion picture (simply called White Christmas) that starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Attempting to enhance the brand name of their enterprise, producers of this stage adaptation, now on a tour stop at the Pantages Hollywood, added the composer to the title, but this White Christmas doesn’t belong to one of the greatest songwriters of all time. We may be humming the tunes heading out of the theater, but what we go home with is the terrible taste of a truly eye-rolling book by David Ives and Paul Blake. Their mawkish musical—basically a variation of the let’s-put-on-a-show storyline—has been trotting around the country at holiday time since its 2004 San Francisco premiere and short 2008 Broadway stint, proving just how desperate Americans are for nostalgia and sentimentalism.

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The sleight plot is reminiscent of most MGM musicals, escapist fare that needed no more than a wisp of story to get to the next standard. A popular song-and-dance team, Bob Wallace (Sean Montgomery) and Phil Davis (Jeremy Benton), served under a crusty but benevolent general named Henry Waverly (Conrad John Schuck) during World War II. The general bought a winter resort after returning to civilian life, and now his investment is in peril because Vermont (where most of the musical takes place) is experiencing a heat wave, driving away all the winter sports customers. So Wallace and Davis decide to put on a show that would attract lots of paying visitors and thus bail out the good general before he loses his beloved inn.

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The love element is established when the boys encounter a nightclub act consisting of sisters Betty (Kerry Conte) and Judy Haynes (Kelly Sheehan). Replete with ludicrous misunderstandings, the storyline stretches romantic confusions to the last scenes, when saccharine happy endings abound.

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Director Randy Skinner can’t do anything to redeem the hopeless book, and indeed his production sometimes aggravates its inherent problems by never allowing the show to breathe (except when Schuck, the erstwhile Daddy Warbucks from Annie, descends into pure bathos at show’s end) and by turning loose heavy doses of shtick and hamming in the name of comic acting (two chorines, Rita (Kristyn Pope) and Rhoda (Elish Conlon) are perfect examples). Other characters include innkeeper Martha Watson, played by Lorna Luft (Judy Garland’s  daughter), whose wisecracking Ethel Merman bit never really takes off, and Susan Waverly, the General’s precocious little granddaughter (Clancy Penny, alternating with Samantha Penny) who is turned loose in Act II to tug at the heartstrings of the audience, but her short number only made my teeth ache.

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On the positive side there are all those Irving Berlin standards—“Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep),” “Blue Skies,” “Sisters,” “How Deep Is the Ocean” and (lifted from the 1942 film Holiday Inn) “Happy Holiday” and the iconic title song—along with a bunch of serviceable but less familiar numbers (Michael Horseley conducts the excellent but way-overmiked 15-piece orchestra). Skinner’s choreography is mostly in the 1930s style, highlighted by Fred-and-Ginger duets involving Benton and Sheehan in “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” and “I Love a Piano.” The derivitive yet distracting dance numbers feature a wardrobe full of colorful outfits by Carrie Robbins.

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An attractive, energetic, and extremely skilled ensemble delivers one solid tap dance number after another. The only time your Christmas will be bright is when the characters stop talking and start singing and dancing; when this happens, the evening actually becomes an agreeable entertainment.

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photos by Jeremy Daniel

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web1_13_ibwc-1-_7445390Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
national tour
Hollywood Pantages
ends on December 4, 2016
tour continues through January 1, 2017
for cities and dates,
visit White Christmas Tour

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