Monday, January 5, 2015

White Christmas: Seasonal Treat

The cast of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. (Photo: Kevin White)

The stage adaptation of Irving Berlin’s 1954 movie musical White Christmas toured the country for a couple of seasons before opening for a limited Broadway run in 2006. I caught it in Boston nine years ago and found it so satisfying that, when it came through again this Christmas, I went back for a second look. The original production carried a directing credit to Walter Bobbie, with Randy Skinner listed as choreographer; Skinner is now listed as director, too, but the show is almost exactly the one I remembered.

Part of the reason I checked in with the musical again was my disappointment at the Goodspeed’s attempt to do something similar with Berlin’s other Christmas perennial, Holiday Inn. (The song “White Christmas” was written for Holiday Inn and won the 1942 Academy Award, though most people associate it with the later picture.) To be fair to Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, who adapted Holiday Inn (Greenberg also directed it), the source material, though perfectly adequate for one of the tossed-off musicals Paramount specialized in during the thirties and forties, is awfully thin for the stage. White Christmas, by contrast, was overstuffed as a movie and distinctly on the sappy side, but it has just about the right weight for a musical evening in the theatre. And David Ives and Paul Blake, who wrote the playscript, have dried it out a little. The plot about the song-and-dance men, Bob and Phil, who discover the general they served under in World War II moldering away as the proprietor of a nearly bankrupt Vermont inn and conspire to rescue it – and him – doesn’t strong-arm you the way it does in Michael Curtiz’s movie.

It certainly helps that this time around the role of the retired general is played by Conrad John Schuck, who, as just plain John Schuck, appeared in a handful of Robert Altman’s best early movies, M*A*S*H (as Painless, the dentist), McCabe& Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us. (As Chicamaw, the embittered, alcoholic bank robber in the last of these, Schuck gave one of the most staggering displays of character acting on record, though he has yet to receive the recognition for it.) Recently and unexpectedly, Schuck has made a career out of appearing in musical revivals; he was Daddy Warbucks in one Annie revival, and I’ve seen him in productions of My Fair Lady and Juno, the too-little-known musical of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. In White Christmas, in the role created on screen by Dean Jagger, he doesn’t get much to do until the end, when he walks out on stage the night of the revue Bob (James Clow) and Phil (Jeremy Benton) have cooked up to draw crowds to his inn and discovers dozens of veterans from his unit sitting in the audience. The speech he gives them is a stock piece of writing, but Schuck delivers it with a perfectly calibrated balance of modest understatement and whole-hearted emotion.

Trista Moldovan and Kaitlyn Davidson (Photo by Kevin White)
This is a lovely show. Clow and Benton (in the Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye parts), Trista Moldovan and Kaitlyn Davidson (as Betty and Judy Haynes, the sister act who become romantically involved with Bob and Phil) sing appealingly and hoof expertly. And they’re supported by a fine ensemble that appears in force during the “Snow” number on the train to Vermont – amusingly staged, on one of Anna Louizos’s many attractive small set pieces, so that more and more travelers make their way into the train car on every verse and you start to think of the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. Skinner has built some full-scale dance numbers around this ensemble, notably “Blue Skies” at the end of act one, “I Love a Piano” at the beginning of act two, and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” – a winter wonderland finale (featuring more of Carrie Robbins’ charming period outfits), reserved for the curtain call. None of these three songs comes from the White Christmas movie: “Blue Skies” made its first appearance in an obscure 1926 show called Betsy (where, oddly, it was the only tune not written by Rodgers & Hart); “I Love a Piano” hails from one of Berlin’s first Broadway musicals, Stop! Look! Listen!; and Dick Powell was the first to croon “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” in the winning 1937 movie On the Avenue. There are other interpolations, too, and except for the overzealous Al Jolson specialty “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (from the film Mammy), all of them are welcome. They include “Love and the Weather” (first recorded by Kate Smith), “Happy Holiday” from Holiday Inn, and “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” from Miss Liberty, which has been gloriously reimagined as a close-harmony trio for the Haynes sisters and Martha, the concierge of the hotel (and the general’s crypto-love match). (Pamela Myers, whom Sondheim aficionados will recall as the brass-lunged alto who sang “Another Hundred People” in the original Broadway cast of Company, is now playing Martha.)

For me, the highlight of the movie has always been Rosemary Clooney, as Betty, applying her affecting dark-chocolate voice on the knockout torch ballad “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” with its clever lyric:
My one love affair
Didn’t get anywhere
From the start
To send me a Joe
Who had winter and snow
In his heart
Wasn’t smart
(It’s the way Berlin uses the winter/snow motif from “Snow” and “White Christmas” for the opposite effect, to suggest a romantic freeze-out, that gets to me.) Moldovan is more than up to the challenge of standing in for the ineffable Clooney – plus she’s a better actress. It’s a backstage-musical number – Betty sings it at a Manhattan nightclub – with a dramatic context: Betty has run away from Bob due to a misunderstanding, and he’s chased her down here. The stage version gives Bob an answering song, “How Deep Is the Ocean,” a Depression-era Berlin gem that might be the most haunting melody he ever concocted. As performed by Moldovan and Clow, this medley is, as intended, the emotional high point of the show.

When I saw White Christmas in 2005, my only complaint was that Bobbie and Skinner fell short of providing the dramatic finish the show merited. When the cast gathered on the stage of the barn on the inn property – the setting of Bob and Phil’s theatrical – to reprise the title song, I thought the back door should have swung open to reveal a snowy landscape. To my delight, that’s precisely what happens now, and Ken Billington’s lighting enshrines the Hollywood-soundstage image, an ideal ending to an evening that never once shortchanges its audience

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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