Irving Berlin's

Music by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Marquis Theater

Reviewed by Richard Gleaves

I have a theory about why kids get excited around Christmas time. It is due to their year-round lack of credit cards. Think about it. As adults, we're free to walk into any store, plop down a Visa, and walk away with whatever we hanker for (provided the scratch is available and too often even when it isn't). But as kids we were completely dependant on our parents for our food, toys and entertainment. No wonder we went ape in the run-up to Christmas Morning. If we missed our gift-receiving window it would be a whole year before we'd see another haul! So we worried incessantly- making lists, appeasing Santa, snooping in closets and shaking our presents. It's this last I remember most- estimating the entertainment value of a present by its shape, wrapping, and by the way it shifted or rattled when I twisted it around.

The worst present was always the rectangular department store box: this was always clothes. I could tell by the telltale swish of fabric inside. Even though I was an optimistic kid, I knew that this was practical clothing and not anything cool. It would never turn out to contain an authentic Luke Skywalker Hoth fatigue jacket or Jedi cloak. No, it was always a sweater for the winter semester or, worse, underwear. The best present was the heavy, irregular box- particularly the one that clanked or rattled when shaken. This was always a toy. Nothing makes so distinctive a sound as a tabletop pinball machine.

Taking an inventory of my presents was easy with the shake-and-listen method. It always gave a fairly accurate estimate of the fun/sensible ratio of my Christmas. But, I could never take the entire inventory at once. I always had to stop and start (often losing track) because Mom or Dad would catch me in the middle of my investigations and yell- “Quit that. You'll break it!”

This season's Christmas present to theatergoers is the brightly wrapped, giddily marketed and brightly colored stage adaptation of Irving Berlin's White Christmas.

What can I say? Someone shook it too hard and it fell apart.

The show sticks roughly to the storyline of the 1951 film on which it is based: Wartime buddies / Broadway crooners Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby in the film, here played by Stephen Bogardus) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye / Jeffrey Denman) meet the lovely Haynes sisters and follow them to a New England Inn. They discover it to be owned by their former commanding officer, General Waverly, who is down on his luck. Due to warm weather and lack of snow, the Inn is failing. Our heroes stage an elaborate stage show in a barn, rescuing the general financially while paying tribute to his war record. The story, at first glance, is merely a thread on which to link Irving Berlin standards like so many pieces of popcorn- culminating in the beloved title song. The producers certainly seem to have thought this was the case. They have given this production a beautiful and lavish physical lushness; the cast is top-notch, the orchestrations are lovely; everything on stage speaks to a high level of competence and enthusiasm. But the book of the show seems to have been either an oversight or an afterthought. For all the lovely musical and choreographic wrappings, the actual story- the gift inside the box - has got missing pieces, dropped plot points, coincidences, shifts of emphasis and collapsed story logic. The result is a White Christmas with all the requisite glitz but none of the heart, which is worse than no White Christmas at all.

I was actually surprised that I found the stage show so false and off-putting. Surely, the movie wasn't that much better!? So, before I began this review, I went back to the original film to discover if the fault was with the source or whether the adaptors had gone horribly wrong. What I found was that, yes, the film may be sentimental and slight but it is internally consistent in a way that the musical is not. The film is a satisfying story with great songs. The stage musical is great songs only, and the songs suffer as a result.

As an example, let's take the very first scene of both the film and the musical:

Film: Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye) perform a Christmas eve show for the troops. General Waverly arrives, escorting a new general that will be taking his place at the front. Knowing the new general to be a harsh taskmaster, he gives his driver instructions to drive the man to the wrong location, allowing his men to finish their unauthorized holiday party. This demonstrates that General Waverly's priority is the needs of his men, not the needs of the military- which makes credible the soldiers' indebtedness to him and, by extension, the rest of the plot. With bombs going off in the distance, Bob Wallace sings “White Christmas”. General Waverly interrupts and with a few words obliquely lets the men know how much he will miss them. Bombs fall, the men scatter. Phil Davis rescues Bob Wallace from a collapsing wall- cementing their friendship and establishing the theme of honor/camaraderie between soldiers that continues throughout the movie and makes all subsequent actions explicable.

Musical: Keeps the setting, the song, and the general's interruption. The rest is cut.

Admittedly, every adaptor has to cut things out when creating a stage libretto- but it is the librettists responsibility to first do no harm. If the major theme of friendship and honor is cut from White Christmas, what do you have left? If the event that creates the central friendship is cut- what explains that friendship? If the General takes no concrete action that makes his troops love him, what explains the necessity of saving his Inn? Why should we care?

That, in brief, is the difference between the two: the film gets us to care and the musical does not.

In a hundred small ways, the libretto of Irving Berlin's White Christmas undercuts and sabotages the charms of the original film. Each character has been made a quarter-turn stupider, a notch less charming, a smidge broader. The background character of the General's niece, for example, is a poised and lovely young lady in the original. The stage musical pushes her center stage and makes her a cutesy pre-teen, apparently in a bid to make the story more family-friendly then it already is. I could rattle off a dozen similar bad libretto decisions that have spoiled this material and I would still only be warming up. Suffice it to say that the blame for the evening rests entirely with bookwriters David Ives and Paul Blake (Mr. Blake is additionally credited as “a producer making his Broadway debut”. Make of that what you will).

All this is a terrible shame, because the rest of the production is very attractive. While Bogardus and Denman don't quite have the wattage of Crosby and Kaye (who does?), both are likeable and charming and Denman is a fantastic dancer. Kerry O'Malley and Meredith Patterson do a fine job as the Haynes sisters. The ensemble singing and dancing is especially strong. The sets by Anna Louizos are picture-perfect Currier and Ives.

And the score is actually stronger here than in the film. Gone are several songs from the film (including, thankfully, the minstrel number) to be replaced by standards like “Blue Skies” and “I Love a Piano”. The vocal arrangement of the song “Snow” is particularly fine- a quartet in the original film, it has been expanded into a choral gem.

But, at some point, the 1951 screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank was shaken too hard and fell apart. Which is a shame, because with the right book all the elements were there to make “White Christmas” a delightful holiday musical that could have warmed our hearts and set our toes tapping.

Just like the ones we used to know.

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