Reviewed by Judy Richter
The San Francisco Bay Area has more than its share of beloved holiday presentations, including American Conservatory Theater's "A Christmas Carol" and the San Francisco Ballet's "The Nutcracker." Now it seems that another show is joining the list, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," presented by Best of Broadway. It premiered last year at the Curran Theatre and returns this year at the Orpheum Theatre. It was a terrific show last year, and if anything, it's even better this year. Director Walter Bobbie and his creative team have tightened it up, eliminating one number altogether. They've also assembled a first-rate cast, including several performers from last year.
The book by David Ives and Paul Blake has its roots in the 1942 movie "Holiday Inn," starring Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds, and the 1954 movie "White Christmas," starring Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Dean Jagger and featuring Berlin's incomparable songs, including the title song. This stage version includes several other Berlin songs, all of which seem tailor made for the show. How can you miss with tunes like "Happy Holiday," "Sisters," "Count Your Blessings," "Blue Skies," "How Deep Is the Ocean," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," the title song and others? All are sung well, and several are accompanied by Randy Skinner's exciting, inventive choreography, performed by terrific dancers. Some of the more memorable production numbers are "Let Yourself Go," "Blue Skies" and "I Love a Piano."
The story is simple and heartwarming without being sappy. Two World War II Army buddies, Bob Wallace (Graham Rowat) and Phil Davis (Mark Ledbetter), have become a successful song and dance team, appearing on the likes of the Ed Sullivan show. They learn that their former commanding officer, Gen. Henry Waverly (Charles Dean), is having a hard time as an innkeeper in Vermont, especially since that winter has yet to produce any snow. They take their show to Vermont to help the general. They also round up the other members of their Army division to attend the Christmas Eve performance.
In the meantime, they meet two sisters, Betty (Kate Baldwin) and Judy (Shannon O'Bryan) Haynes, who also have a song and dance act and who have been booked at the general's inn. Phil and Judy are immediately attracted to each other, but Bob and Betty have to negotiate several obstacles and misunderstandings before their love blossoms. (Rowat and Baldwin were married to each other on Oct. 2, the day before rehearsals began.)
Rowat, Ledbetter, Baldwin and O'Bryan all are excellent singers. In addition, Ledbetter and O'Bryan are talented dancers, as seen in "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" and 'I Love a Piano." Dean, reprising his role from last year, is appropriately crusty yet kind as the general. Also returning in her role, Susan Mansur plays Martha Watson, the general's earthy, invaluable assistant and an Ethel Merman channeler in "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." Nine-year-old Nicole Bocchi plays the general's precocious granddaughter, Susan. The large orchestra is directed by Ben Whiteley. The handsome, fluid sets are by Anna Louizos with lighting by Ken Billington. The stylish 1954 costumes are by Carrie Robbins.
This is a show designed to please all ages and to give everyone a happy holiday feeling.