Sweet Escape

By Scott Harrah

“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” is pure holiday fluff. This deeply flawed but entertaining adaptation of the classic 1954 movie (which starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney) was a regional hit in San Francisco, St. Paul and Boston in previous years before coming to Broadway. Most of the cast and Randy Skinner’s choreography are serviceable, and the best things about the show are the glorious sets by Tony nominee Anna Louizos (“In the Heights” and “Avenue Q”), Tony nominee Carrie Robbins’ festive costumes, and Irving Berlin’s sublime songs.

In these times of economic crisis, “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” offers wonderful escapism. Unfortunately, the show is more like a jukebox musical showcase for Irving Berlin’s songs than a true adaptation of the movie. Then again, wasn’t the movie made to cash in on the popularity of Bing Crosby’s titular mega-hit “White Christmas”? Berlin classics like “Blue Skies” and “I Love a Piano” are hardly Christmas carols and are thrown in for no apparent reason other than the fact that they are well known and pad out the story with color and panache. However, they are so elaborate and splashy, one quickly forgets they have nothing to do with Christmas.

Those who have seen the movie already know the story: two old Army friends, Bob Wallace (Stephen Bogardus) and Phil Davis (Jeffry Denman), have become song-and-dance men after World War II. The guys pull together a sister act, Betty and Judy Haynes (Kerry O’Malley and Meredith Patterson) and gear up for a gig at a Vermont inn run by their former Army boss, General Henry Waverly (Charles Dean). Standouts include the spunky, quick-witted Susan Mansur as the inn’s receptionist, Martha Watson, and Kerry O’Malley as Betty. O’Malley is first-rate when singing the torchy solo ballad “Love, You Didn’t Do Me Right,” decked out in an elegant gown while singing in a posh Manhattan nightclub. It’s the type of nostalgic glamour we rarely see on Broadway anymore, and the high point of the evening. Unfortunately, there’s little onstage chemistry between Betty and her love interest, Bob, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

The show features lots of corny jokes and silly plot twists, but “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” is primarily a showcase for lavish production numbers, tap dancing, and endless costumes. The closing number, “I’ve Got Love To Keep Me Warm,” is performed by the female cast all decked out in mock-Victorian costumes, with the men sporting 1950s-style Christmas sweaters, and surrounded by a snowy set that makes the whole ending look like one of those Currier and Ives plates depicting New England yuletide scenes that your mother probably set out every December next to the cherished family heirloom Nativity set. Yet “White Christmas” isn’t strictly for gentiles. There’s a nice added touch for Jewish theatergoers, too—a brief, cute rendition of the Chanukah standard “The Dreidel Song” in act one.

The show’s most famous song—other than “White Christmas,” “Snow,” and “Happy Holidays”—is the gleefully camp “Sisters.” Just like in the movie, both the Haynes sisters and the two male lead characters, Bob and Phil, perform “Sisters” at different points in the show, complete with feathered fans that only a drag queen could truly appreciate.

“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” could easily do without all the tacked-on songs and would be far more enjoyable as a one act instead of this drawn-out, embellished production that relies on too much “filler” material that wasn’t in the movie. However, as lighthearted holiday fare, director Walter Bobbie and his team have put together a delightful diversion that’s a sure crowd-pleaser for anyone looking for sugary-sweet, mindless seasonal entertainment.