Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Based on the film, screenplay by
Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank
Originally Directed on Broadway by Walter Bobbie
Directed by Marc Bruni
Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn NJ

Reviewed by David Spencer

I wrote the following upon the return of White Christmas to Broadway for a second holiday season (I missed it the first time out). Since the production at Paper Mill is to all intents and purposes a verbatim remounting, directed by original director Walter Bobbie’s assistant on that production, Marc Bruni—whose job would be remountings—and the leads are played by veterans of the Broadway and road companies…I’ve only tweaked the review to reflect the particulars; my opinion hasn’t changed at all.

                        A whole different conversation happens between a new musical production and its source material if the source is not a stage piece, but a movie musical—which is to say a musical specifically created for the screen. Putting aside animated films (a whole different discussion), it’s generally a bad idea to create a live action stage musical out of a live action film musical, because film musicals speak a different language, which is reportorial more than poetic: the audience’s imagination is never solicited to conspire in creating the illusion. Consequently, they're not structured like stage musicals, the characters tend to be prosaic rather than large and iconic, and it's impossible on a proscenium to duplicate the particular, magnifying intimacy of the camera, which is what allows star persona to override and fill out formulaic characterization. Generally, putting cinema tuners onstage (think Footloose, Saturday Night Fever, Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain) tends to bloat them out of proportion, flatten the emotional qualities, and minimize the personae of the unfortunate actors who aren’t the iconic movie stars they’re standing in for.

                        Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (that’s the official title) falls into all the usual traps—

                        —but it has its proponents, and those tend to be people who don’t know the film well enough to be distracted by the changes; and I think it rates leniency by the simple fact of it being a Christmas story annual with Irving Berlin songs. Colleagues of mine who do know the film have railed against this adaptation (book by David Ives and Paul Blake); but not having seen the flick since I was a kid, I had no choice but to take the stage show on its own terms. And as such, I thought it was the ultimate “Let’s get a barn and put on a show” type of experience in that it seems to have been assembled as quickly, efficiently and (to coin a word) cornily as possible (the barn thing actually happens in the story, by the way).

                        Subsequently the production turns the list of “missing” qualities into a perverse asset, because no one’s aiming for, or pretending, elegance. Under the direction of Marc Bruni, replicating Walter Bobbie’s Broadway production, there’s an antiquated (but entirely appropriate) Broadway broadness to the performance style, the curtains-drops-flats presentation mode is right out of the 1950s how-to textbook (or deliberately made to seem so) and sweet, silly innocence (even when the comic is ogling the ladies) is the order of the day.

                        Only one of the lead players is new to the enterprise, the rest having appeared in the Broadway and/or road versions: James Clow & Jill Paice are the “serious” romantic couple, Tony Yazbeck & Meredith Patterson are the comic one, Edward James Hyland (the newcomer)  is the grand old retired general they’re hoping to help out and Lorna Luft is the General’s trusty and devoted assistant. They and the ensemble give it their significant best, the audience seems to be getting exactly what it hopes for, and beyond that I don’t have the heart to be picayune. Go and enjoy, Merry Christmas.

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