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BWW Reviews: IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS Delivers Sweet Dreams

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at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theater Through December 8, 2013

What kind of holiday do you want? Do you want a fat-free alt-rock caff-plus edgy postmodern holiday, or do you prefer a traditional cookies and cocoa cozy with both marshmallows and whipped cream type affair? Nowadays, beloved Christmas movies often include words like "Bad", "Lampoon" and "Nightmare". However, if your holiday favorites feature words like "Miracle", "Wonderful" and "Toyland" in their titles, WHITE CHRISTMAS is for you.

First, praise for the fabulous Hippodrome theater itself: every staff member and volunteer is cheerful, friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Nearby parking is available and reasonably priced. The interior of the historic theater is filled with Rococo details that will occupy your attention until the show starts should you happen to have left your cellphone in the car. Or even so. For this production, the proscenium arch is unobscured and the posh box seats are evident. A simple scrim bears the show's logo, with uncomplicated childish snowflakes projected upon it. The musicians in the pit begin to tune.

If you're familiar with Irving Berlin's 1954 film version of WHITE CHRISTMAS, the stage production will not surprise you. In fact, if you're a fan of films from the '40s and '50s, the show will not surprise you. It is warm-hearted, earnest and contains Hays Production Code-appropriate content. If you're looking for a sexed-up, modernized version of the show, keep looking. The plot twists are unsubtle, the ending unsurprising, the characters unremarkable, but it's a familiar formula. Comforting. The stage production contains elements of buddy movie and romantic comedy with a great deal of Hey, Kids, Let's Put On A Show! in the best Busby Berkeley tradition. More than this, I must not say, for if you already know, you know already, and if you don't, you'll guess soon enough.

The overture seems a tad long, but this, I think, is because there are no opening credits to read.

The sets are deceptively simple. The production values of this show are extremely high, but it's fairly low-tech by today's computer generated-virtually realistic-marvel of mechanics standards. That is to say, it looks a little bit cheesy, but deliberately so, historically and appropriately so, and besides, who doesn't love cheese around the holidays? The colors are bright and splashy- almost, but not quite- garish, even. Though the set pieces were minimal and mobile, there were plenty of them, enough to create a combat environment, four different stage spaces, a train car, the upscale Columbia Inn and a barn (Of course. A barn.) There are several more interior sets, and a particularly lovely exterior at the end, which, just using basic math skills, seems not simple after all. The lighting was effective and so unobtrusive as to be nearly invisible. Everything looked rich, vibrant and wonderful, so Ken Billington, lighting genius of understatement, is to be commended. Credit also goes to Billington for the Very Special Effects at the show's finale.

It is probable that I irritated the person sitting behind me with my frequent squirming and neck-craning, but I had to: designer Carrie Robbins' costumes are impressive. They're accurately detailed, brilliantly colored, character appropriate and they move with a fantastic fluidity which is delightful to see. Even the shoes are worthy of attention, memorably some bubble boots on a pair of adorable Oxydol Soap girls, Rhoda and Rita, played with commitment and ditzy charm by Kaitlyn Davidson and Kristyn Pope.

If you enjoy heartfelt vocal numbers, you'll like this cast. If you are a fan of imaginative big-production dance numbers, you'll like this cast. If you appreciate good acting, you'll like most of this cast. The strong core cast is joined by an equally strong and versatile ensemble of 16 talented actors who fill out each set with animation and precision. The plummy-voiced Cory Bretsch appears as four different micro- or mega- phone-wielding characters. The primaries, David Elder and James Clow in the roles of Phil Davis and Bob Wallace (respectively) are capable, charming, and physically different enough to be distinguishable from one another. To be honest, I prefer Elder's version of Davis to Bing Crosby's. David Elder brings a welcome stalwart earnestness to Phil, and James Clow in the role of Bob Wallace has the smooth practiced charm of many successful showbiz personalities. Meredith Patterson, who originated the role of Judy Haynes on Broadway, and Trista Moldovan as Betty Haynes, are highly skilled, likeable and authentic.

Joseph Costa's portrayal of General Waverly is gruff, warmhearted and believable. Ruth Williamson as Martha Watson is great fun and the number one candidate for show-stealer. Her Merman-esque performance of "Let Me Sing And I'm Happy" had the feel of a finale, giving the audience the impression that intermission was at hand. It was not. The end of Scene 9 also seemed to the crowd a cue for intermission, but intermission did not come until after Scene 10's "Blue Skies", which is expanded from a wee montage clip in the movie to a full song and dance number. Its backdrop (by the way) looks to have been swiped straight from the Paramount lot.

I'll digress briefly for those of you who have the treasured classic movie memorized, who may wonder whether the stage production differs in any significant and possibly disturbing way. A quick rundown: Emma Allen's name has been changed to Martha Watson; the role of the granddaughter is unnecessarily expanded, but the addition of the mostly-mute Cliff Bemis as curmudgeonly Ezekiel Foster, keeper of the barn, almost makes up for that. "Snow" becomes a cast ensemble number on the train car; "I Love A Piano", an energetic, multi-leveled tap number, replaces the movie's embarrassing "Minstrel Show" and the very weird "Choreography"; action and complications have been streamlined and musical numbers have been rearranged. The addition of songs thoughtfully chosen from Berlin's enormous catalogue including "Let Yourself Go", "Love And The Weather", "How Deep Is The Ocean", the aforementioned "I Love A Piano" and "Happy Holiday" improve rather than simply expand the show.

The music has been carefully arranged for the stage production to retain the old-fashioned charm with which the songs were originally written, and is performed by a full orchestra rather than the pared-down 12 or 16 pieces that is the contemporary standard for musical theater. The vocals have been given equal attention, and the numbers are richly full of Golden Age harmony.

The show is visually engaging: coordinated color schemes are hues best described as "juicy" and the overly saturated nature of the costumes and set dressings reminded me a good deal of early Colorized versions of black and white films. Steps and platforms give dimensionality to the action and dancing. The quick fly mechanics of scrims, dangling signage and a crystal chandelier keeps locations progressing quickly, with montage-style choppiness. A great deal of action takes place in front of a scrim or the main traveller, so set changes seem to take no time whatsoever. We are never in one place long enough to get bored with it, and in some cases (the Regency Room set) the sequence is over before you've properly appreciated each elegant accoutrement. The pacing is snappy without being frenetic and the whole thing just pops. There's a beautifully choreographed number at the end that suggests ice skating, though the dancers are wearing tap shoes. Choreographer Randy Skinner has done a wonderful job with the Big Hollywood Production-style dance numbers.

Yes, it's old-fashioned. Yes, it's traditional. Yes, it's familiar. But for many of us, the holiday season is all about the comfort of old-fashioned and familiar traditions. If you're looking for a happy, cozy show to start off your seasonal celebrations, WHITE CHRISTMAS delivers brilliantly.

WHITE CHRISTMAS runs through this Sunday, December 8th, with shows at 8 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Saturday matinee at 2 pm, Sunday shows 1 and 6:30 pm.


Tickets for Irving Berlin'S WHITE CHRISTMAS are available at the Hippodrome's Box Office at 12 North Eutaw Street, Charge-by-Phone 410-547-SEAT, at all Ticketmaster Outlets, and online at Broadwayacrossamerica.com

IBWC "White Christmas": The Irving Berlin's White Christmas 2013 National Tour
Company, Photo by Kevin White


IBWC Tour "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" : (L to R) Meredith Patterson and David Elder from the Irving Berlin's White Christmas 2013 National Tour, Photo by Kevin White


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