I approached the production of WHITE CHRISTMAS currently playing at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts with fairly low expectations. I was curious to see how one of my favorite movies would translate to the stage, and I thought the show would provide some pleasant holiday cheer.
To my delight, I found an energetic and vibrant production which put a smile on my face for pretty much the entire two and a half hours; in fact, I think it was my favorite of the four stage shows I saw in 2011!
It's hard to compete with the ghosts of Crosby and Kaye and a film which is a Christmas perennial loved by generations, but after the creaky opening scene (including a very fake truck), WHITE CHRISTMAS completely engages the audience with a smart reimagining of the show, headed by the dynamic singing of Stephen R. Buntrock as Bob Wallace and the energetic dancing of David Elder as Phil Davis. Lovely redhead Stefanie Morse plays Betty, with Shannon M. O'Bryan as her blonde sister, Judy.
The basic plot remains the same: two men who are famous entertainers meet a sister act, and they all end up at the struggling Vermont inn owned by the men's C.O. from the war a decade earlier. They all put on a show, romance ensues, and all are happy with the arrival of a White Christmas. The End.
Sounds simple, but there was magic to spare in the way the movie told it. There are enough familiar moments in the theatrical production to make it cozy -- even small things like the hand clapping as part of the choreography for "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" -- and enough new ideas to make it interesting.
WHITE CHRISTMAS successfully incorporates a number of songs from the Berlin catalogue which weren't used in the film, starting with "Happy Holiday" from HOLIDAY INN (1942). "Let Yourself Go," a number illustrating the '50s success of Wallace and Davis, is a spectacular, colorful dance which takes place minutes into the show. From that point on, I was sold.
"I Love a Piano," familiar to musical fans from EASTER PARADE (1948), opens Act 2 as a duet for Phil and Judy, dancing on top of a small white piano. Before it's over, the song turns into a crowd-pleasing tap number with the entire chorus, which elicited cheers as it came to a close.
Similarly, "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," which first appeared in the film ON THE AVENUE (1937), is used as the big "send 'em home on a high note" closer after "White Christmas." The choice was simply perfect. The finale mixes both songs, and I don't mind saying that when snow started falling over the audience at this point, I teared up. It was a magical theatrical moment.
My favorite "new" song was "How Deep is the Ocean?" which Bob movingly sings in the midst of Betty's nightclub number, "You Didn't Do Right By Me." (Kudos for the outstanding nightclub set and costumes for this scene.) This was also Stefanie Morse's best scene, a great chance for her to shine vocally. When Betty later returns to the inn before the big show, she sings "How Deep is the Ocean?" to Bob, and then they sing it as a duet. It's one of my favorite songs, and this quiet vocal moment in the inn on Christmas Eve gave me as many goosebumps as the big dance numbers. It was a beautiful romantic scene with exquisitely sung music.
Familiar songs from the film were creatively restaged. "Snow" becomes an absolutely delightful choral number on the train, as more and more people crowd the car and join in the song. "Count Your Blessings" is now a lullaby Bob sings to the general's granddaughter Susan (Caroline Farley), with Betty looking on. (Susan's age was lowered by several years for this telling of the story.) "Blue Skies," which appears only briefly in the movie, was turned into a great number for Bob and the chorus to close Act 1.
The romances do get short shrift, and Betty and Judy are more ciphers than fully developed characters, but it's hard to mind that when there's so much great singing and dancing going on. The somewhat abridged character development may not matter as much as it would in other shows, because many in the audience can mentally fill in details based on countless viewings of the film!
My only other criticism is there were an inordinate number of crossovers in this show, those short little bits of business that take place in front of the curtain while the crew frantically changes the sets. Perhaps I've been spoiled by how fluidly sets changed in a show like SOUTH PACIFIC, but the crossovers became a bit too obvious and tiresome as the show went on. The sets themselves, other than for the opening war sequence, were superb, and I also give the costumes very high marks.
The sound quality at Segerstrom seems to vary by production, and it was top notch this evening.
My favorite cast member was Stephen Buntrock as Bob; he was an absolutely terrific singer, and fans of film noir may be amused that I found his looks and personality reminiscent of the Film Noir Foundation's Eddie Muller. Buntrock is a great showman.
Michael Quintos of Broadway World also liked it very much, calling it "a beguiling, surprisingly winsome re-imagining." Paul Hodgens of the Orange County Register said "It's surprisingly fresh yet doesn't feel sacrilegious" and describes the counterpoint of "Love, "You Didn't Do Right By Me" and "How Deep is the Ocean?" as "an inspired moment."
WHITE CHRISTMAS is very highly recommended for a great evening of holiday musical cheer. This is a show I'll happily remember for a long time to come.
Related posts: Tonight's Theater: The Phantom of the Opera; Tonight's Theater: My Fair Lady; Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 14, 2010); Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 22, 2010); Tonight's Theater: Beauty and the Beast; Tonight's Theater: Mary Poppins; Tonight's Theater: West Side Story; Tonight's Theater: A Christmas Carol.