BWW Reviews: IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS at The Kennedy Center - Great Music and Dancing, Underwhelming Production

By: Dec. 14, 2012

Irving Berlin's White Christmas, a nostalgic stage musical based on the classic holiday film of the same name, has delighted audiences across the country with its multiple tours, local theatre productions, and several limited stints on Broadway. A new production, produced by Atlanta's Theater of the Stars, hit The Kennedy Center this week as part of a limited tour. While this touring production showcases Irving Berlin's classic songs with a high-caliber orchestra and some top-notch singing and tap dancing, it's an underwhelming experience overall thanks to some lethargic pacing, some uneven acting, and minimal production values. Still, it's bound to bring local audiences a good amount of holiday cheer and fun if they are simply in search of something fun to do to celebrate the season.

David Ives and Paul Blake (Book) have largely translated the classic movie to the stage with a few modifications - the end result is a quaint, but charming story even if it is a bit hokey for today's audiences. We meet Bob Wallace (James Clow) and Phil Davis (David Elder) as young soldiers in World War II who are putting on a holiday show for their fellow soldiers much to the chagrin of the cranky, but authoritarian and heroic commanding officer, General Henry Waverly (Joseph Costa). Fast forward a bit, the two men return to America and become nationally-recognized entertainers. Wallace and Davis unexpectedly reunite with the General (who's having a bit of a difficult time adjusting to civilian life) in a small and idyllic Vermont town where the General now owns an inn after they follow two young performing sisters, Judy and Betty Haynes (Mara Davi and Stefanie Morse, respectively), there thanks to Davis' interest in pursuing a romantic relationship with Judy. Although the sisters are slated to perform holiday shows at the inn, they face the possibility of not having an audience as a warm weather spell has driven most tourists, looking for a snowy Christmas, away from the inn. Wallace and Davis pull no punches and bring all their resources to bear to help the girls quickly put together a show that will bring an audience. Several questions remain. Will the show go up without a hitch and will it bring a much needed smile to the General's face? Will Wallace and Davis find reciprocal love in Betty and Judy?

The star of the show, of course, is Irving Berlin's music, which ranges from toe-tapping romps ("I Love a Piano," and "Sisters," a personal favorite of mine since I sang it often with my little sister), and jazzy or bluesy ballads ("Blue Skies" and "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep") to classic holiday fare (the title song "White Christmas" and the iconic "Happy Holidays"). Michael Horsley's musical direction is stellar. All of the numbers are well-performed by an excellent cast of singers with "I Love a Piano" being a standout thanks to being paired with some enthusiastic and precise tapping. Although the ensemble numbers are the ones that are particularly memorable, each of the four leads (Clow, Elder, Davi, and Morse) have standout vocal moments thanks to their rich voices and impeccable technique. In most cases, they also bring real emotion to each piece, which makes for an even greater payoff. Davi and Clow, as individuals, are the most successful in combining high quality vocals with emotion in their respective vocal moments.

Although the characters portrayed in this piece are very much of the stock variety, Davi and Morse are particularly successful in delineating the differences and commonalities between the sisters - all of which have great implications for how Judy and Betty deal with their budding relationships with Phil and Bob. Likewise, Clow and Elder stress Phil and Bob's bonds and points of tension. The end result is believable chemistry between all four characters. Several other cast members deserve mention. Young actress Andie Mechanic is delightfully spirited as the General's young granddaughter, Susan (also played by Shannon Harrington at some performances), and definitely holds her own against the more experienced members of the cast. Ruth Williamson brings her brassy, strong vocals and impressive showmanship to the role of Martha Watson, the patient woman who keeps everything in order for the General at the inn. She has charisma to spare and although I felt that some of the lead and supporting performers lacked energy in the book scenes, she certainly had plenty of energy and was always 'present.' Less successful are Kilty Reidy as the stage manager with a performance that borders on cartoonish and results in few laughs even though it is a comedic role, and Joseph Costa who is rather one-note as the General. Costa, in particular, seems to lack chemistry with Williamson and Mechanic and although his character is pretty closed-off emotionally, it's important for his softer side to be shown as he interacts with his close family and friends.

Norb Joerder favors a 1950s style approach to staging the show with curtain drops during the set changes. While I applaud his desire to bring an old-time quality to the show, it stops the show dead in its tracks and after some time, thanks to the numerous scene changes, it can feel like one spends more time looking at the blue curtain decorated with snowflakes than the actual sets. The pacing of Act I is also particularly slow, but to his credit, it does pick up in Act II. Kenneth Foy's scenic design and adaptation (based on Anna Louizos' Broadway designs - which were a highlight for me in a Broadway production I saw several years ago) is minimalist and although the sets do establish time and place and have an old-time quality, they are quite generic and not particularly conducive to the Kennedy Center Opera House stage. While the set may work for smaller venues, it leaves the Kennedy Center stage a bit empty. An effect at the end (where snow falls on the stage and on the audience) also loses something in the expansive Opera House.

The production fares better with its costumes, orchestra and choreography. Carrie Robbins' costumes plentiful costumes are time-period appropriate, visually interesting, and delectably colorful. The 18-piece orchestra plays Larry Blank's bright and brassy orchestrations with vigorous energy. The overall lack of energy in the production is certainly not the fault of this particular orchestra - in fact, the music emanating from the pit is perhaps reason alone to see this show. Randy Skinner's choreography is energetic and, at times, quite interesting. He's most successful with the tap numbers.

Overall, Irving Berlin's White Christmas is a step above your average holiday fare. Even if it left me wanting more, one does have to appreciate the music and dancing talent involved and any show which features Berlin's classic tunes is worthy of attention.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas plays at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through January 6, 2013. For tickets, call 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.

Photo Credit: Sharon Sipple.


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