Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2007
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is both an attempt to present the beloved 1954 film musical “live on stage” – an effort that is doomed to failure because film and theatre are two completely different art forms – and an excuse to sing and dance to a pile of great Berlin songs. It succeeds far better as the latter.
The 1954 film was based on the earlier 1942 film Holiday Inn in which Big Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds (voiced by Martha Mears) introduced the song “White Christmas” as a duet. “Holiday Inn” starred Crosby and Fred Astaire, which is why the two sisters are a singer (mate for Bing) and a dancer (mate for Fred), and it celebrated every holiday on the calendar. The later film starred Crosby and Danny Kaye, and focused on the attempt of two World War II veterans to save a Vermont inn run by their former commanding General one snowless Christmas. This is the plot the stage musical follows.
It is not much of a plot, but if this is your favorite movie of all time you will not be disappointed as the stage show is a fairly faithful reproduction of the film, including all your favorite numbers, like Blue Skies, Count Your Blessing Instead of Sheep, Sisters (sung by the ladies and by the gentlemen), and the title song.
I saw this show at the Mac-Haydn in July when, after some grumbling about being forced to feel festive off-season, I just loved it. Here at Cohoes it left me absolutely cold, despite it being the right time of year.
There is no doubt that I saw an absolutely disaster-ridden opening night. Sets either went up too slowly or down too fast, often colliding with set furnishings. Actors were flubbing lines and whoever was running the follow spot must have hoisted a few eggnogs too many because it was roaming aimlessly about the theatre. But these things happen and they can be easily fixed.
The major difference between the two productions was physical size. The Mac-Haydn is a theatre in-the-round, so all the seats are very close to the performers. You can’t build a set and location has to be suggested with a few carry-on pieces, hand props, and lighting. Cohoes is a proscenium house, which means not only are sets expected, but that the audience is physically separated from the stage. What worked up close and personal with minimal setting at the Mac here became a cumbersome dinosaur with ponderous sets by Jen Price Fick, many of which were skimpy and some of which were downright ugly.
Jennifer Raskopf is credited with the costume design, and a blurb in the program stated that some of the outfits were rented from the Mac-Haydn. This gave me great hope because Jimm Halliday's costumes for this show were absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately Raskopf only rented the ugly ones. And were we really supposed to believe that all those young chorines would have packed summer clothes for a gig in Vermont in December? They obviously all attended the Ginger Grant School of Packing for Three Hour Cruises.
One problem that will plague almost every production of this show is the fact that the two actors who play the leading roles of Bob Wallace and Phil Davis are not big stars. When Big Crosby and Fred Astaire or Danny Kaye told you they were big stars you believed them because, even though Wallace and Davis are fictitious, Crosby and Astaire/Kaye were as big as they came. Here we have Brad York, who looks remarkably like a young Nathan Lane from a certain angle, as Wallace and the wiry Tim Dolan as Davis. Wallace is the singer and while York doesn’t manage to sound like Bing Crosby he is a strong singer and a likable performer. Dolan is no Fred Astaire, but then who is? He is a strong, athletic dancer, and the one thing that works in this production is Tralen Doler’s big, splashy dance numbers. Dolan and Courtney Romano as Judy Haynes are a dynamite dancing duo in In Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing and the Act II opener I Love a Piano.
Otherwise the usually splendid Doler is way off base with his direction of this show. Many performers have been encouraged or are allowed to act MUCH too broadly, notably the also usually splendid Monica M. Wemitt as the General’s factotum Martha Watson. If you are a big fan of Mary Wickes (and everyone should be a Mary Wickes fan!!) as Emma Allen in the film you will be disappointed in the decision to change that cantankerous New England lady into brassy retired song-and-dance gal Martha “The Megaphone” Watson (an obvious homage to the late comedienne Martha “The Mouth” Raye), and even more disappointed in Wemitt’s loud but empty performance.
As the Haynes sisters Romano and Hebert can barely pass as second cousins, and they are both very young performers who need age and experience to hit their respective strides. Neither of them can really act, but Hebert, playing Betty the singing sister, can really belt it out and Romano, as the dancing sister, dances up a storm. For the latter you need to be young, especially for the athlete maneuvers Doler has concocted. There were times in Romano and Dolan’s number that they resembled ice skaters more than dancers.
My favorite moment in the film is when those hundreds and hundreds of soldiers march into the barn at the Pine Tree Inn singing We’ll Follow the Old Man and that moment was handled very nicely here with just a few members of the male chorus planted throughout the house to make it sound like a rousing crowd. Michael Hayes gave a restrained and tender performance as General Henry Waverly, and young London Sperry upped the show’s spunk factor considerably as his bookish granddaughter Susan who is bitted by the show business bug.
Crosby’s recording of White Christmas is the biggest selling single of all time, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, but Crosby has been quoted as saying that “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully.” He’s right, because I know I sound just fabulous when I sing it in the shower. That is actually the magic of many Berlin songs and the reason why they still so very popular – they are easy, and fun, to sing. In fact it is so much more fun to belt out God Bless America than to tackle the barely squawkable Star Spangled Banner that there have been several movements to have Berlin’s ballad officially named our national anthem.
So you will be glad to hear that you are invited to sing along with the title song, which closes the show here, although for some reason the sing-along takes place with York standing alone on stage in front of the closed curtain. Why not after the curtain has been opened to reveal the full cast in their holiday finery, and the SNOW?!?!
Actually, even the snow looked fake and felt anticlimactic. When it snowed in the Mac-Haydn this summer it was still shredded white plastic that was falling and you could clearly see the mechanism that was dispensing it, but everything was so close and immediate. Snow was falling and beautiful people in red velvet with white faux fur trim were throwing tiny candy canes and urging you to sing along – it was just as fake and corny as it could be, which is exactly why it was a magical holiday treat.
Irving Berlin originally wrote the song White Christmas as a joke on a California neighbor who was always moping about the wonderful Christmases back east. Everyone knows that it is statistically more unlikely than likely that it will snow on December 25 even in New England, that there was no snow in Bethlehem 2007 years ago, and that holiday cheer is in short supply these days, but that does not stop us from glomming on to Berlin’s warm and glowing portrait in words and music to the kind of Christmases we all wish we could remember.
I think I'll just keep dreaming of Christmas in July...until the revival of one of Doler's better efforts La Cage Aux Folles returns to the Cohoes stage in the New Year.
Irving Berlin's White Christmas, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through December 16 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances Thursday, Friday & Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3 p.m; with added performances Wednesday December 12 and Sunday December 16 at 8 p.m. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007