Tuesday, December 24, 2019

White Christmas and Seared: Another Go-Round

The cast of White Christmas at Boston's Wang Theatre. 

I saw Randy Skinner’s stage version of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas nearly a decade and a half ago when it swung through Boston on its pre-Broadway tour (at the time Walter Bobbie was listed as co-director) and again five years ago, when I reviewed it here. It’s back in Boston, this time in an even larger space, the Wang Theatre, formerly the home of the Boston Ballet, and I couldn’t resist taking another look. The show has lost a little of its freshness, or perhaps it’s just that the Wang has swallowed up some of its intimacy; the comic bits – not the high points of the David Ives-Paul Blake adaptation of the 1954 movie perennial – feel somewhat rote. But it’s still a charmer and an undeniable crowd pleaser, and I had a lovely time reacquainting myself with it.

Jeremy Benton has returned to the role of Phil Davis, the Danny Kaye part, but the other three stars were all new to me – David Elder as his partner Bob Wallace (the Bing Crosby part) and Kerry Conte and Kelly Sheehan as Betty and Judy Haynes – and all four of them are very good. (Since I last saw Benton in this show, he won a highly deserved Astaire Award for playing Bob Hope off-Broadway in Cagney.) Benton and Sheehan are a visual and terpsichorean match as the more lighthearted of the two duos, who hit it off immediately and then hang around hopefully, waiting for sparks to ignite between Bob and Betty. As anyone who has seen the movie knows, the romantic-comedy obstacle is Betty’s misperception that Bob is a cynic who thinks everyone plays an angle; she finally falls for him when she realizes it’s only a façade masking a heart of gold. But then she gets the idea that when he comes up with the plan to try out a new revue at a struggling Vermont resort run by his and Phil’s old commander, a sidelined general, it isn’t out of affection for the old guy but in order to buy the property out from under him. This misinformation has to be sorted out before Bob and Betty can get together in time for opening night and the final curtain. It’s not a brilliant piece of plotting (Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank wrote the screenplay) but it does the trick, and Ives and Blake are smart enough to undersell it; I’ve always found the movie, for all its pleasures, rather heavy-handed. Elder’s warm baritone and Conte’s even warmer contralto blend gracefully in their duets, especially in the middle of the second act when he treks to New York, where she’s taken a job at a club, to try to get her to return to Vermont. In the movie, Rosemary Clooney as Betty sings “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” – the vocal high point of the film – but in the stage musical there’s a bonus: Bob, sitting alone at his table, counters with an even more beautiful Berlin ballad, “How Deep Is the Ocean,” one of the show’s nine interpolations. Elder and Conte certainly do right by Berlin – especially Conte, whose phrasing on all of her songs is exquisite.

Conrad John Schuck is still playing General Waverly, and his reading of the eleventh-hour speech to his reassembled troops, which I commented on in my 2015 review, hasn’t lost any of its poignancy. His concierge and amanuensis, Martha Watson, is now Lorna Luft, who brings it a vaudevillian robustness. (She’s like a less loopy Betty Hutton.) Waverly’s granddaughter Susan is being played at alternate performances by Emma Grace Berardelli and Kyla Carter; I saw Carter, who’s bright-eyed and appealing.

Skinner has approached this material with a veteran’s know-how, piling the chorus amusingly into a train car (Anna Luizos designed the sets) for “Snow,” staging a knockout first-act finale, “Blue Skies” (led by Elder) and then topping it with the second-act opener, “I Love a Piano” (showcasing Benton and Sheehan). White Christmas is a most welcome seasonal treat.

Raúl Esparza in Seared. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Theresa Rebeck’s hilarious comedy about a prima-donna chef, Seared, which I saw at Williamstown two summers ago, is now playing off-Broadway at MCC’s new space on West 52nd Street. It’s the same production, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, with two of the same actors and two new ones. Raúl Esparza has replaced Hoon Lee as the chef, Harry, who is driving Mike, the restaurant’s co-owner – who put up all the money for this new Brooklyn venture – to distraction, and Mike is now played by David Mason. W. Tré Davis is back as the wised-up waiter, Rodney, whose impossible job it is to navigate the increasingly treacherous territory of Harry’s kitchen after Mike takes on a consultant named Emily to maximize the restaurant’s virtues – the chief one, of course, being Harry’s cooking, which is sheer genius. Krysta Rodriguez recreates her performance as Emily. Davis and especially Rodriguez are still terrific, and though I think Michael Esper showed more range in the role of Mike, Mason is excellent. The problem is Esparza. He’s often very funny, but he’s not playing a character; he’s just giving a show – and his showmanship is too heavy a weight for this light, immensely clever piece. It’s less fun than it was in the Berkshires, though it’s in an ideal space that shows off Tim Mackabee’s nifty set and you can’t fault either von Stuelpnagel or the other three actors. The second act is better, or perhaps I just adapted to the changes brought on by Esparza’s presence.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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