Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, now at the Kennedy Center Opera House through January 6, is an irresistibly toe-tapping song-and-dance confection which rolls a selection of Irving Berlin hits into a warm, nostalgic, and energetic entertainment package, wrapping it all up with a bright red Christmas bow.
Dating from the early 2000s, this show has an interesting history. It’s shape, its songs, and its stories were first trotted out in “Holiday Inn,” a 1942 film starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as Jim and Ted a pair of sometime entertainment partners who find themselves involved in Jim’s pet project—a rural inn that opens only on holidays and features special entertainment.
The holiday motif was the perfect excuse for recycling tasty bits of the Irving Berlin song repertoire including his early hit, “Easter Parade,” adding to them a new song he wrote for the film. That was, of course, the now ubiquitous “White Christmas” which copped the 1943 Oscar for Best Original Song.
Fast-forward to 1954. Similar to TV today, what better idea could a filmmaker have than to recycle a previously proven hit movie? What the Paramount Studio got in this remake was “White Christmas.” The new film repackaged part of “Holiday Inn’s” plot and even brought back one of that film’s stars, Bing Crosby. Der Bingle was paired this time with Danny Kaye with both deployed as entertainers Bob Wallace and Phil Davis. The creaky original plot was streamlined (somewhat) by turning the original “Holiday Inn” into a largish, year-round, but failing Vermont B&B run by the pair’s former commanding general in the Second World War.
The new story line focused on Bob and Phil’s attempt to turn General Waverly’s operation around by attracting guests to their star-studded show, which includes a full chorus plus their latest love interests, sister act Betty (a young and more willowy Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen, a onetime partner of Fred Astaire).
With a re-tooled list of Irving Berlin songs, and with its World War II frame tale— still relevant ten years after the war’s conclusion—“White Christmas” was yet another hit, one we still see occasionally on TV this time of year.
At the turn of the current century, Broadway got the bright idea of recycling this film again into a new holiday show. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas was born. Given its terrific musical score—which includes the unforgettable title song along with “Count Your Blessings,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “I’m Happy,” “Sisters,” “Blue Skies,” “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and “I Love a Piano”—this Broadway re-tread is, if anything, now more popular than the ’54 film and continues to make the rounds to theaters large and small.
We initially caught up with this show just one or two Christmases back in a delightfully intimate incarnation staged at Toby’s Dinner Theater in Columbia, Maryland. The current Kennedy Center extravaganza ups the budget—and the amperage—in a good-natured, high-energy production featuring upbeat musical arrangements, brilliant holiday colors, snappy, jazzy choreography, and at least one appropriate but unexpected special effect at the show’s finale.
The best thing about this production is the sheer, happy exuberance of its cast, all of whom really sell the pure joy that should be a part of every Christmas season.
As Bob and Phil, James Clow and David Elder are easier and somewhat less bristly than their counterparts in the 1954 film. Both were in excellent voice in the performance we attended and each seemed perfectly suited to his part. Clow’s Bob sings somewhat weightier songs that seem well matched to his expressive instrument, while Elder’s Phil gets the lighter stuff plus the opportunity to strut his considerable skills as a dancer.
As Bob’s and Phil’s love interests, the Haynes sisters Betty and Judy, this ensemble has found the perfect match for them in Stefanie Morse and Mara Davi. A bit deeper and more sultry than her sister, Betty is a bit more complicated a character than you usually get in a fluffy musical, and Morse’s interpretation of her character actually adds the perfect touch of gravitas to this show’s frantic, dash-about, behind-the-scenes pace. Davi’s Judy is lighter, easier to get along with (for the most part), and, as a dancer, is the perfect match for David Elder’s Phil, particularly in their solo spot, “I Love a Piano.”
In short, a better pair of couples you’re not likely to find, and you find yourself wanting all four of them to be winners in the hit parade of love.
The supporting cast doesn’t take a back seat in this production, either. Joseph Costa nails the essence of the cantankerous General Waverly, whose gruff countenance conceals a heart of gold. Ruth Williamson turns the almost stock character of Martha Watson—the brassy mother hen of the General’s inn—into a real human being whose brusque exterior hides both a big heart and a frustrated Ethel Merman wannabe. Kilty Reidy is a comic stitch as frantic stage manager Mike Nulty. And Cliff Bemis has his prototypically taciturn native Vermont handyman Ezekiel Foster down to a T.
And we can’t fail to mention the performance of young Andie Mechanic who plays Susie…umm, Susan Waverly, a bright little lady who will quickly correct you if you don’t get her name right. Susan starts out by impressing us as a serious, nerdy little girl. But she eventually gets the stage bug, erupting in the second act as a real song and dance girl.
Andie Mechanic gave an absolutely dynamite performance. Her voice alone had an almost impossibly professional sheen to it, and we hope her developing talent will be managed with great care. (Note: the role of Susan is rotated with Shannon Harrington.)
Closes January 6, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours , 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $39 – $150
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and tickets
Moving right along, the supporting cast and chorus was also a delight in this production as was the snappy performance of the pit band. Unfortunately, however, this brings us to the only brickbat we have for this production. The sound mix, particularly in the early going, still needed some work as evidenced by Thursday evening’s opening performance.
Musical productions these days have been saving money around the edges by hiring fewer musicians, a reality which we don’t much like, frankly. That said, we do understand current economies and can grudgingly accept this, at least for now.
But beefing things up via the sound system requires at times a feather light touch and great aural sensitivity or you end up having problems with the mix. At the opening of our performance, the amplification of the band overwhelmed the singing and continued to do so from time to time during the rest of the performance, particularly in those numbers that featured the female soloists.
Irving Berlin was not a rock artist and doesn’t come across very well when he’s amplified like Led Zeppelin. Our advice to the sound crew is to pull back on the throttle just a bit so we can all join in a well-earned chorus of “I’m Happy.”
That said, in the end, the Kennedy Center’s current production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is a marvelous, unexpected gift with which to enjoy this holiday season. As the chorus, soloists, and the audience joins in a final, wintery chorus of “White Christmas,” this show seems the picture-perfect, positive way to wrap up a Washington year in which divisions have so often seemed much more important than the dreams that have kept us all together as a nation for so many years.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin with a book by David Ives and Paul Blake, based on the Paramount Pictures film. Directed by Norb Joerder . Music Director: Michael Horsley . Choreographer: Randy Skinner . Costume Design: Carrie Robbins . Set Design: Anna Louizos, adapted by Kenneth Foy . Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald . Lighting Design: Ken Billington . Produced by Theseus Productions and Theater of the Stars . Presented by The Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Terry Ponick