Theater Review: IRVING BERLIN’S WHITE CHRISTMAS (National Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 11, 2019

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Given the daylight deprivation that comes with December, music works like light to dispel the darkness. This musical couldn’t be brighter:  White Christmas, of course, salutes the similarly named 1954 film that itself builds on the 1944 delight Holiday Inn, the film that in the middle of a war premiered the season’s most beloved non-carol. (Bing Crosby all but owned this Yule standard for the first decade.)

No question, this holiday chestnut — with a new book by David Ives and Paul Blake — remains unashamedly old-fashioned, aggressively nostalgic, and filled with postwar optimism. How can it not be when the Irving Berlin classics that open it (“Happy Holiday”) and end it (“White Christmas”) are for most Americans essential ingredients for holiday cheer?

Happily, what’s in this touring treat never needed to be fixed — because it was never broken to begin with. We’re regaled with 150 minutes of terrific tap dancing, snappy patter, a breezy pace, go-for-broke ballroom dancing, cornball humor, goofy plotting, period-perfect costumes from the Eisenhower Era, and the best hoofing this side of Heaven.

Strictly by-the-numbers and comfortably contrived, the plot involves Wallace and Davis, a vaudeville team looking for a new act, who join forces with Betty and Judy Haynes, a sisters duo, to help the guys’ former general draw crowds to his Vermont ski lodge and hostelry. It’s 1954, ten years after they first partnered at a USO show for the 151st Division. Wallace and Davis are now big stars but they haven’t forgotten where it all began and who made it possible.

So with Vermont’s winter season now threatened by a total lack of snowfall, they answer the call to do a Broadway tryout in a big old barn. “Let’s put on a show!” It’s serendipity on cue. Of course, some clever confusion arises over whether the boys will end up in Florida or rehearse their new Broadway show in New England, then whether that inn will be sold to a corporation and, of course, whether each sister will dutifully fall for the vaudeville hoofer of her choice.

It’s all an perky/peppy excuse for such Berlin gems as “Blue Skies” (performed with a bit too much jazzy syncopation for my taste), “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” “I Love a Piano,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and, of course, the inexhaustibly evocative title number. They’re a showcase for David Elder and deftly dancing Jeremy Benton as the happy hoofers who fall hard or soft for Kerry Conte and Kelly Sheehan, the literal sister act who croon “Sisters.” (Fond memories of Rosemary Clooney are unavoidable.) They don’t have to be larger or louder than life: Human size fits the songs perfectly. The courtship scenes fare well here, if only because they’re so damn danceable: Director/choreographer Randy Skinner lets the notes set the steps to equally seduce us through the ears and eyes.

Leather-lunged and brassy-loud in the Ethel Merman persuasion, Lorna Luft brings major moxie to “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (the credo of all the careers here). She incarnates the hard-boiled, pizzazz-packed inn manager, combining Thelma Ritter, Bea Arthur, Nancy Walker, and Alice Ghostley as she peps up every scene with deadpan wisecracks. Conrad John Schuck is ramrod rigid, lovably crusty and contagiously gruff as General Waverley (even though the plot goes haywire near the end as he returns to the Army, then reenters retirement for reasons that aren’t worth a second thought). Kyla Carter (alternating with Emma Grace Beradelli) is an ingratiating moppet as the general’s Shirley Temple – cute granddaughter Susan.

The huge, charismatic ensemble resemble so many perpetual-motion machines, singing and dancing their own beautiful blizzard in a winter wonderland called the Columbia Inn in Vermont. The lesser-known Berlin numbers may not be undeservedly neglected. “Love and the Weather” adds nothing but “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” is a ballad of sisterly solidarity, and the constant treasure “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” ends the evening with a Currier and Ives waltzing fantasy complete with falling snow.

These twenty surefire hits and lesser wonders from a totally American composer are irresistible, guilty pleasures packed with musical calories. Running only through December 15 before it continues on tour, Broadway in Chicago’s import to the Cadillac Palace Theatre packages them to perfection.

photos by  Jeremy Daniel Photography

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
ends at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre on December 15, 2019
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway In Chicago

tour continues through December 29, 2019
for cities and dates, visit White Christmas Tour


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tony Frankel December 11, 2019 at 10:21 am

I saw this tour when it came through Hollywood three years ago. Tap-tastic? Agreed! But that story and dialogue?! I’m dreaming of a White Christmas with a better book. (Here’s my review.)


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