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A CurtainUp Review
Irving Berlin's White Christmas
The question is whether knowing what you are in for is commensurate with getting what you pay for? Of course not. But this is not to say that the listless and grievously miscast show that has landed at the Marquis Theater for the holiday season isn't doing its job delivering mediocrity gussied up in typical bus-and-truck trappings. It has the look of a road-show specifically designed (The settings by Anna Louizos are mercifully not nearly as atrocious as are the costumes by Carrie Robbins) and hobbled together to attract unsuspecting families and gullible tourists. How sad is that?
What this wan and dispiriting production, under Walter Bobbie's direction, lacks above all is simply star power. Although Steven Bogardus (in the Bing Crosby role), as Bob, and Jeffrey Denman (in the Astaire role), as Phil, go through the obligatory motions as a pair of re-united song-and-dance men, they don't have the panache that distinguished the stars in both previous films. Unlike the cleverly contrasted film players, Bogardus and Denman also share a physical similarity that dilutes our sequestered affection for them.
This is, of course, the stage version that has been playing engagements across the country for the past five years. Whether it is true or not, the show gives us the impression that all connected with it are tired. Unlike previous misguided stage versions of film classics such as Meet Me in St. Louis, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin' in the Rain, and Gigi (to name but a few), Irving Berlin's White Christmas hasn't got even a whiff of wit or a stroke of cleverness about it. Although it boasted a grand Berlin score, the original film(s) was never much more than a perfunctory vehicle for its stars.
What higher hopes could we have for a revitalized or even reconstituted stage version than to anticipate that the original film script (by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank) would be honed to resonate with the sparkle that has previously defined the stage work of the show's co-author David Ives. Ives and Paul Blake (who is also one of the producers of the show) have, however, unwittingly spoiled what was essentially stale to begin with.
It is hard to figure out what exactly director Bobbie had in mind as the show limps from one plodding musical number to the next and from one boring book scene to next. Homage is paid to the mid-1950s with a scene from the Ed Sullivan Show and passing references to Kate Smith, Senor Wences, and Dorothy Kilgallen among others. One looks in vain for a bit of sincere sentimentality amidst the dross masquerading as entertainment. How ironic and depressing that Berlin, a composer known for his sentimental streak should have such wonderful songs as "Blue Skies," "Sisters" "Count Your Blessings. . .""How Deep is the Ocean" and even the title song (winner of the 1942 Oscar for Best Song) delivered mechanically and without much verve.
Another missing element is humor as the two entertainers who served in the same regiment come to the rescue of their former, now retired, army General who is on the verge of losing his inn in Vermont. Along the way, they find themselves falling in love with sisters who also sing and dance. Except for a nicely staged ensemble tap number to the strains of "I Love a Piano"led by Denman and Meredith Patterson, who plays Julia (the Vera Ellen role in the 54 version), the choreography by Randy Skinner is surprisingly pedestrian throughout and hardly challenging to the presumably seasoned dancers.
Bogardus, who seems more consigned than connected to his role and Denman, who has been smiling through the show since it premiered in San Francisco in 2004, just don't seem able to give the show the lift it so sorely needs. Perhaps the characters were never meant to be more complex than whatever can be summoned up through a Berlin lyric. We are grateful that Meredith Patterson and Kerry O'Malley (the Rosemary Clooney role) are primarily distinguished by their blonde and red hair respectively. Unfortunately on the night I saw the show, Ms O'Malley's big torch song "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" was sabotaged by faulty electronic enhancement.
Charles Dean is amiable as General Henry Waverly, but also has the misfortune to have to deliver a painfully bathetic speech near the end of the show. Susan Mansur, as the ex-vaudevillian innkeeper, puts some snap into her role and into her big song "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." Until the big snow-falling finale, Mansur had the one number that pulled you away from the inclination to begin making your holiday shopping list.