Like Sarah Lee, nobody doesn’t love White Christmas. And so if David Ives and Paul Blake have constructed a pallid book which is little more than a sagging tree to be hung with Irving Berlin’s ornaments, and if Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore has put on a production which relies mostly on pre-recorded orchestrations (“The OrchExtra music enhancement system is provided byReal Time Music Solutions, New York, NY,” the program explains), so what? It’s Christmas, for heaven’s sake. Lighten up.
Don’t get me wrong: the principal virtue of an Irving Berlin musical, aside from the free and easy lyrics (“I know a fine way/to treat a Steinway…”) is the opportunity it gives for good singers to do their stuff, and Toby’s takes full advantage here. In particular, Lawrence Munsey in the lead role of Bob Wallace is in fabulous voice – his first Act-closing “Blue Skies” is the best part of the production – and the choral work is similarly swell, particularly when the sister act of Judy and Betty Haynes (Julia Lancione and Janine Gulisano-Sunday) gets together with Martha Watson (Jane Boyle), a Broadway ex-star inexplicably turned boondocks concierge. If only there was a real band to accompany the cast (listening to the actors vamp by saying “a million dollar proposition” over and over again while waiting for OrchExtra to catch up with them was excruciating) the music would have been wonderful.
Alas, there is the dratted book, which is just like the movie version of White Christmas with the good parts taken out. Wallace and Phil Davis (David James), who apparently songed-and-danced their way through WWII, hit the big time after the war and by 1954 are enormous stars. Although they are scheduled to make an appearance in a big Miami nightclub, Davis – a hopeless womanizer – decides after watching the Haynes sisters to follow them by train to Vermont, bamboozling the hapless Wallace into thinking he’s going to Miami. By some fantastic coincidence, the inn in which the Haynes sisters are scheduled to appear is owned by Henry Waverly (Samn Huffer), Wallace’s and Davis’ commanding officer during the war. Waverly is apparently first in war and last in innkeeping, his lodge being a mere half-step ahead of Chapter 7. To complicate matters further for the ex-General, the yuletide temperature is seventy-eight degrees, and the gaggle of ski-toting prospective customers (long-term weather projections apparently not having been invented yet) stalk out (apparently to go to the lodge across the street, which has artificial snow). No worries, though, Wallace and Davis will save their old CO’s bacon, by expropriating the Haynes Sisters’ engagement and putting on a huge show themselves. Not that the Sisters mind – they’re in love, Judy enthusiastically with Phil, and Betty more tentatively with Bob. When Betty hears something about Bob which she misinterprets, she stalks off the show and does a solo gig in New York – this is the closest thing we come to conflict – and Bob (somewhat dolefully, it seems) follows her to the Large Apple, where he serenades her with songs of love and wins her return, both to the act and to his arms.
This stuff has all the charm of an aluminum Christmas tree. It is hard to make it convincing – the fact that Bing Crosby could do so, using the more sophisticated film script, shows what an underrated actor he was – and for the most part, the actors don’t make much of an effort. In general, they show the same degree of naturalness as celebrities do on Christmas variety shows, where they says things like, “hey, Rachel, don’t you know a song about that?” to cue the music. This artificiality may be the design of director Darren McDonnell, who ramps up the stomping, screaming stage-manager (Ray Hatch) and the rambunctious rustic roadie (Daniel McDonald) to such a degree that I was compelled to look for Tex Avery in the credits. Bring on the dancing girls, you are moved to say, and lo and behold, here they come – along with the dancing boys, performing Paula Lynn’s excellent choreography.
From all these carping criticisms, I specifically exempt Lancione, who is fantastic as the libidinous sister Judy. I absolutely bought that she was in love with Phil (as I could not buy that Betty and Bob were in love), and what’s more she sings and dances like a dream. And now is a good time to mention that the costumes (Munsey) are superb as well. I spent several minutes trying to find my eyeballs after seeing a particular pair of Christmas-tree-themed confections worn by Rita and Rhoda (Jen Kohlhafer and Christen Svingos).
But: canned music, unconvincing acting, corny and banal plot and dialogue – and none of it means a darn. At the end, when General Waverly, Retired, a great military leader and a horrible innkeeper, stands before an audience composed of the men whose lives he once held in his hands, and in his newly-earned and newly-discovered humility accepts their love and gratitude while his granddaughter (Kaila Friedman or Jacqueline Kempa) opens the door to show the town blanketed with snow, it’s Christmas, it’s White Christmas, and every failing is swept away.
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives & Paul Blake
Directed by Darren McDonnell
Musical Direction by Pamela Wilt
Choreographed by Paula Lynn
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
White Christmas runs through Jan 10, 2010.
John Harding . Howard County Times