Irving Berlin holiday classic receives rich, nostalgic production
|Broadway in Chicago and Broadway Across America presents|
|Irving Berlin’s White Christmas|
|Written by David Ives and Paul Blake
Music by Irving Berlin
Directed by Norb Joerder
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through Jan 2 | tickets: $25-$98 | more info
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
Inspired by the 1954 film that itself builds on the 1944 delight “Holiday Inn” (which premiered the title song), Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is unashamedly old-fashioned, aggressively nostalgic, and filled with postwar optimism. How can it not be when the Irving Berlin classic with which it begins and ends is now a essential part of the holiday DNA for most Americans? The production values are vintage too—terrific tap dancing, go-for-broke jubilee choreography, cornball humor, goofy plotting, period-perfect costumes from the Eisenhower era, and lots of pretty scene changes. (Who says Broadway shows don’t have scenery anymore? This one packs a thousand glorious illusions passing as set pieces.) This blast from the past is a winter storm we can savor.
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 barn when the winter season is threatened by a total lack of snowfall. It’s serendipity on cue. Of course, all kinds of 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 excuse for such Berlin gems as “Blue Skies” (performed with a bit too much jazzy syncopation for my taste), “I’m Happy,” “I Love a Piano,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and, of course, the inexhaustibly evocative title number. They’re a showcase for John Scherer and Denis Lambert as the happy hoofers who fall hard or soft for Amy Bodnar and Shannon M. O’Bryan as the sisters who sing “Sisters.” Everything you loved in the movie you can savor here in three dimensions.
Ruth Williamson, as the hard-boiled, Broadway brassy inn manager, combines Thelma Ritter and Alice Ghostley as she peps up every scene with deadpan wisecracks. Erick Devine is lovably crusty 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). Eleven-year-old Mary Peeples is a perky moppet who was born to play Annie as well as the general’s Shirley Temple-cute granddaughter and will steal a show, if not a scene, if she’s not watched carefully.
The 17-member ensemble resemble so many perpetual-motion machines, singing and dancing their own beautiful blizzard in this Currier and Ives vision of Vermont. (The whole show is like a series of life-size Christmas cards singing enchanting melodies.) The lesser-known Berlin numbers may not be undeservedly neglected but the surefire hits from this totally American composer are absolutely irresistible. This Christmas confection can more than hold its own with A Christmas Carol (our review ★★★½) and The Nutcracker (review ★★★★), just a few blocks away.