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BWW Reviews: Sweet WHITE CHRISTMAS Tour is a Wonderful Winter Treat

It's always so heartwarming when one comes across a theatrical production that has taken a beloved movie musical and reassembles it well as a wholly new stage show that tries to honor its source material. It's certainly a rare occurrence, so when it succeeds, one can't help but be pleasantly surprised by it.

Such is the case with the current touring stage production of IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS, a beguiling, surprisingly-winsome re-imagining of the classic 1954 Paramount Pictures musical motion picture of the same name. The original film, which starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen, remains an iconic holiday staple even today, so this attempt at a stage adaptation of something so universally adored feels like a brave one right from the get-go.

Though many icicles away from being really extraordinary, this admirable, neatly-packaged stage production—now performing a limited three-week engagement through January 1 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa—is saved from being just another run-of-the-mill musical thanks to its incredible Irving Berlin melodies and its enjoyable, smile-inducing dance performances that harken back to a simpler time... just like the ones we used to know.

Sweetly antiquated and unabashedly old-school, this buoyant stage adaptation of WHITE CHRISTMAS feels like a freshly unearthed Berlin musical that's been hidden away in some buried archival vault. For the most part, the main machinations of the original movie's storyline remains lovingly intact here, but have been enhanced: the stage musical (as it does in the film) opens somewhere in the middle of war-ravaged Europe on Christmas Eve, 1944.

Seasoned song-and-dance man Captain Bob Wallace (Stephen Buntrock) enlists Private Phil Davis (David Elder) to help entertain their fellow troops of the 151st Division with a few holiday songs and comedy routines while on a much-needed respite from battle. Their uplifting efforts are very much appreciated by their commanding officer, General Henry Waverly (lovably gruff Joseph Costa), a stern yet sentimental man who seems genuinely heartbroken after announcing that he will soon be relieved of his post within this particular regiment.

Fast-forward a decade later and the irrepressible showbiz team of Wallace and Davis have become household names, hitting it big on Broadway and now performing live on the Ed Sullivan Show! Proven stars that also serve as producers, the duo are heading off to the warmer climate of Miami, Florida to have their out-of-town tryouts for a new Wallace-and-Davis stage spectacular. But first, as a favor to their old Army buddy "Freckle-faced Haynes," they stop by a club called Jimmy's Back Room to audition a sister act featuring Betty (Stefanie Morse) and Judy (Shannon M. O'Bryan) Haynes. Predictably, love/lust-at-first-sight ensues.

Davis—a flirtatious, girl-crazy horndog with a penchant for any pretty lady in a skirt—finds an instant, lusty chemistry with Judy. The same can't truly be said for Wallace and Betty, though their fiery exchanges can only mean one thing: that they're destined to fall for each other too by the time the curtain falls. Hoping to continue his newfound romance, Davis schemes with Judy to get his song-and-dance partner Wallace to ditch the warmth of Florida for the snow-covered peaks of remote Pine Tree, Vermont instead, where the Haynes sisters have a pre-booked gig at the Columbia Inn for the holidays.

Both unaware of the switcheroo, Wallace and the elder Haynes sis Betty accompany their partners (along with a bunch of eager winter weather enthusiasts) by train to Vermont, only to discover upon arrival that a freak heatwave has driven the snow and its snow-loving customers out of town. While there, Wallace and Davis are also surprised by the fact that the Columbia Inn is owned by none other than General Waverly!

Thanks to resident busybody Martha Watson (scene-stealer Ruth Williamson), they all learn that tough times and the lack of customers have forced Gen. Waverly to sink much of his savings into rescuing the struggling inn from total collapse, leaving him teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Feeling indebted to their old commanding officer, Wallace concocts a plan to have the out-of-town tryouts and rehearsals for their new show at the Columbia Inn's barn instead of down in Florida. He summons the cast and crew up to Pine Tree and, once assembled, their plans involve putting on a surprise Christmas Eve benefit for the General—complete with the troops from the 151st Division in attendance!

But, alas, most plans, of course—whether well-meant or improvised—tend to have snags, and much like most Broadway shows in the rehearsal phase, things have a way of going awry. Diving into material akin to sitcoms like Three's Company, WHITE CHRISTMAS' latter half hinges on a HUGE unfortunate misunderstanding that snowballs (no pun intended) into hurt feelings all around. But to divert from the way the film ended would certainly spell doom, so, smartly, all is right with the world by the show's wintery finalé.

Though it certainly doesn't erase the memory of the film that inspired it, this staged version of WHITE CHRISTMAS—directed by Norb Joerder for the tour and choreographed by its original Broadway choreographer Randy Skinner—still manages to not only encapsulate the original film's spirit, but also entertains on its own merits. This is especially evident in the numbers that have been freshly mounted just for this musical.

Filling out the expanded show with additional Irving Berlin tunes not featured in the movie, this revival offers "Happy Holiday" (along with "Let Yourself Go") as a technicolor wonderland at the top of the show, while the second act opener "I Love A Piano" becomes a giddy tap-happy extravaganza that will have audiences smiling in delight. Even a minor character in the film, Ms. Watson, gets upgraded in the stage version to offer a few stand-out songs, too: the wonderfully declarative "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" and "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun" which she sings with Betty and Judy in their half-hearted protest against men.

But, to be sure, the stage version also tries its best to do right by the songs that were in movie as well. In the marvelously re-staged "Snow," the song becomes a party-like celebration on the train featuring the entire company singing the song (instead of just the main four characters singing it in the film, charming though it may be). "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" becomes a story-forwarding device rather than a mere number to showcase the undeniable dancing talent of Vera Ellen. I even prefer the way this stage version treated "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep"—turning it into a bittersweet lullaby to the General's granddaughter Susan (the adorable Caroline Farley) that also manages to serve as a device for Betty to realize she's falling in love with Wallace. Sigh.

Other songs plucked from the movie include "Sisters," which gets both of its cute appearances in the film lovingly recreated on stage (though, admittedly, I still prefer the song's treatments in the movie) and, of course, the title song—which bookends the stage show just as it does in the film. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, so to speak, the powers-that-be of the stage version chose rightly to keep these two songs as closely hewn to the original as possible (some of the less iconic songs in the film have been omitted for story purposes, which I guarantee you will not miss).

And, like the show itself, the two leading men at the forefront of this musical show no signs of foolishly impersonating the legendary actors that appeared in the film, but rather highlight their own newer incarnations of likable people. As Bob Wallace, Buntrock does a fine, upstanding job with his role, even managing to crack a cheeky smile here and there to make his character slightly less unflappable and straight-arrow as his celluloid counterpart. Elder, who plays Wallace's amusing sidekick Phil Davis, is quite a lively ball of energy, singing and dancing full-out without even a bead of sweat in sight! His matinee-idol looks also help convince the audience that any girl who crosses his path truly will fall for his charm. Together, the pair have an easy rapport that's as authentic as can be, from every note to every laugh to every toss of a shoe.

Unfortunately, without the imbedded star wattage of a Rosemary Clooney or a Vera Ellen, the guys' female companions Betty and Judy are revealed to be just mere periphery characters, even in this expanded stage show. Nonetheless, Morse (Betty) and O'Bryan (Judy) give the roles their all, and are both lovely vocalists in their respective showcases. O'Bryan also proves she can very much keep up with Elder in their dance pairings, especially in "I Love A Piano."

Faring better than the other females in this stage version is the expanded character of gossipy Mrs. Watson, played wonderfully by Williamson. Spunky and even a little bawdy, Williamson steals the show several times throughout the evening (including in her backstory-revealing song "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy") and seems to be having a ball with the part with every brief appearance. She even channels a bit of Lily Tomlin in many of her comedic scenes.

In addition, she shares such a nice chemistry with her sparring partner, the excellent Costa (Gen. Waverly) that it makes you wonder if a follow-up to this show will find their characters married to each other in the future. Collectively, the peppy ensemble is a harmonious, well-oiled machine, especially in the group numbers that find everyone in glorious, tap-happy unison. The entire company really hits home the idea of this kind of can-do, plucky  community spirit—the kind of aww-shucks-ness found in many of these "Oh, hey, let's put on a show in five days!" kinds of stories... and it's no exception here.

Overall, while the original film is truly an inimitable classic, this satisfying stage version is able to hold its own mostly because it doesn't seem to have any pretense in its core. It's a pleasant, old-fashioned song-and-dance show that just happens to have an infamous lineage—and, yet, it doesn't try to simply ape the movie that inspired it at every turn, shot-for-shot.

Instead, this stand-alone stage musical indeed chooses to give a reverent nod to the original movie, but still offers a new, if not more entertaining show for fresh eyes. More than anything, this joyfully-infectious touring enterprise manages to harness a nostalgic fervor for a more innocent, bygone era (backed by lovely Berlin songs as a soundtrack), culminating in the collective smiles of the audience as the snow finally comes trickling down.

Read BWW's Interview with WHITE CHRISTMAS Star David Elder: HERE.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos from the 2011 National Tour of WHITE CHRISTMAS by Carder Photography. From top: Stefanie Morse (Betty Haynes), Stephen R. Buntrock (Bob Wallace), David Elder (Phil Davis) & Shannon M. O'Bryan (Judy Haynes); Elder & Buntrock; ensemble; O'Bryan & Elder. Bottom photo of Ruth Williamson (Martha Watson) by Tanner Photography.

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WHITE CHRISTMAS is based upon the Paramount Pictures film written for the screen by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama & Melvin Frank. It features music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and a book by David Ives and Paul Blake.

Performances of WHITE CHRISTMAS at The Segerstrom Center of the Arts continue through January 1, 2011 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. The 2 p.m. performance on Saturday, December 24 will be sign-language interpreted. **There is a performance on Monday, December 26 at 7:30 p.m. but NO PERFORMANCE on Sunday, December 25.**

Segerstrom Center for the Arts is offering a 25% military discount to performances of the popular holiday musical. Ticket prices start at $15 and can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am).

Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

For more information, please visit SCFTA.org.



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