BWW Reviews: WHITE CHRISTMAS: Nostalgic, Sentimental, Romantic AND an Irving Berlin Score


You would have to be some sort of modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge-mean and spiteful, unfeeling and cold-not to be totally captivated by Irving Berlin's White Christmas, the exuberant stage musical based on the classic holiday film that many hold dear and now onstage at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall through Sunday, November 18.

Directed by Norb Joerder, it's pure escapism this colorful and glittering stage adaptation of the Paramount Pictures film-originally written for the screen by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, and starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen-that is one of the most enduring holiday-themed movie musicals ever made.

Featuring a resplendent score by Irving Berlin, the quintessentially American tunesmith, the stage show is a lighter than air musical confection, sweetly sentimental and wonderfully nostalgic, featuring a book by David Ives and Paul Blake. In short, it's like a trip back in time to period when love triumphs over the most unlikely of obstacles, when boy met girl, boy fell in love with girl, girl and boy put on a show, boy and girl almost break up only to get back together again. It's Americana at its best, set to that glorious Berlin-crafted score that will have you singing along and tapping your feet until Santa shimmies down your chimney on December 24 (and very possibly thereafter).

Starring James Clow and honorary Nashvillian David Elder (he got his start at Opryland USA and is fondly remembered by friends and fans here) in the roles originally played by Crosby and Kaye, with Stefanie Morse in the Clooney role and Mara Davi taking over for the wasp-waisted Vera-Ellen, this production of  Irving Berlin's White Christmas, which originated at Atlanta's Theatre of The Stars, tells the story of Bob Wallace (Clow)  and Phil Davis (Elder), two song-and-dance men who first met as soldiers in World War II.

The relevance of the story, which remains timeless and heartfelt even in the 21st century, is apparent at the very outset of the show: When the action opens, we're in war-torn Europe on Christmas Eve 1944, and Wallace and Davis are performing for soldiers as a battle rages nearby, offering a sense of camaraderie and celebration for the beleaguered American battalions. At the end of the show, the 151st Division's commanding general, the gruff but beloved General Henry Waverly (Joseph Costa) announces he is being sent stateside for an operation to remove shrapnel from his, umm, leg.

Action fast-forwards and we're in New York City in December 1954 and Wallace and Davis have honed their act sharply in the intervening 10 years, headlining a guest appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. After some crafty machinations by one-half of the Haynes sisters' nightclub act (that darn Judy!), the men find themselves at Jimmy's Backroom, watching the two girls perform one of the most famous songs from the movie's catalogue of tunes: "Sisters." Before long they are on a train, headed to Vermont (which features a stunning recreation and reimaging, actually, of "Snow" which becomes a rousing group number that captures an unbridled sense of frigid adventure).

As in the movie, however, the temperature's in the high 70s, there's no snow on the ski trails and now-retired General Waverly's Columbia Inn is struggling to keep its doors open. In one of those fortuitous turns of events that only happen in plays and movies and musicals and real life, Wallace and Davis seize the opportunity to turn the innkeeper's fortunes around with a hearty cry of "hey, kids, let's put on a show!"

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.

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