Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"White Christmas" is a new stage musical based on the 1954 film of that name, which was itself an attempt to build a show around the Irving Berlin hit that had first appeared on screen in "Holiday Inn" in 1947 and was first written in 1942. The song became the biggest selling recording of all time and the 1954 film is consistently one of the top rental films every year. Given the heavy usage and familiarity of the material, all the more surprising that this production should feel so fresh, invigorating and purely delightful. The 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Company has given Seattle the first, best gift of the holiday season.
The production is packed with singing and dancing talent, gorgeous technical production, tight and dramatically balanced direction by Jamie Rocco and David Armstrong, a terrific orchestra under the musical direction of James May, and delirious, razzmatazz choreography by Jamie Rocco. All of the show's production values are first-rate, from Anna Louizos' beautiful set design to Andrew Horka's crystal-clear sound and Carrie Robbins' elegant and evocative costumes.
For all that, the center of this show's success is Irving Berlin and his deceptively simple, genuine songs. His genius for finding the most direct, universal and authentic way of expressing heartfelt emotion finds its apotheosis in "White Christmas" and this show's tasteful selection of other great Berlin songs only enriches the agreeable story and its appealing characters. The book by David Ives and Paul Blake keeps the story focused and the songs perfectly integrated.
That story is a bald-faced contrivance, meticulously crafted. Two big-time singers, who met while serving in World War II, follow two undiscovered singing sisters to a failing Vermont Inn. There, they stage a big show in the barn, inviting all their old comrades back as an audience, and together save the Inn's owner, their beloved old Army General. Romantic complications are resolved in a happy ending that's pure show-biz and spiced-cider familiarity.
"White Christmas" is unabashedly sentimental about Christmas, holiday clich_s, the poignant backdrop of soldiers serving on distant battlefields, the value of loyalties sustained over time and the possibility of true love in a too-often artificial world. But what Rocco and Armstrong have managed to do in their direction, and these actors achieve in their performance, is an authenticity that makes it all feel important and familiar rather than trite, cynical or manipulative. Adding terrific energy, fine voices and winning personalities, the six leading roles are well-balanced and sympathetic, making us both cheer for their happiness and enjoy our own satisfaction when it is achieved. Finally, this staging makes all those wonderful songs feel like they're emerging out of character and situation, that they are evoked by the story and aren't just attachments.
As the successful song and dance act, "Wallace and Davis," Michael Gruber and Greg McCormick Allen are convincing headliners. Following a shtick-filled battlefield Christmas, we see the two men ten years later performing on the Ed Sullivan Show, and their big number, "Let Yourself Go" blows the house wide open. Color and big music and irresistible tap-dancing take over the theatre, and we are blissfully aware that we are about to be taken back to a time when Broadway musicals were all about happy entertainment. Greg McCormick Allen as Phil Davis is fresh and energetic and filled with joyful performance. Michael Gruber, as Bob Wallace, is more cavalier about life and women, but equally filled with the vitality of the stage. He brings the first act to a big finale with a gorgeously staged "Blue Skies" that is as elegant as it is grand. The second act gets under way with a spectacular "I Love A Piano" that brings out white tuxes on the men, very sexy white jackets on the women, and more terrific dancing.
As the two young women who are smitten (eventually) by the stars, Betty (Christina Saffran Ashford) and Judy (Tari Kelly) are impressive and delightful. Tari Kelly has a terrific voice and tons of presence, and as the more assertive and ambitious of the two sisters, her connection with Phil seems like a perfect match of sweetness and pizazz. Betty is a bit more reluctant to trust Bob, for good reason, but with "Count Your Blessings" we see both of them connect on a very fundamental level, and by the second act their romance is a genuinely big thing.
Both women were endearing in "Sisters" and Kelly and Allen, as Judy and Phil, have a sweepingly romantic recognition that "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing". Ms. Ashford was breathtakingly beautiful (physically and vocally) in her cabaret club performance of "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" and paired with Gruber's exquisite "How Deep Is The Ocean" it was obvious that these two were meeting on a very deep and moving level.
Equally satisfying was the gradual romance between retired General Waverly and his faithful desk manager, Martha. Stephen Godwin was a convincingly commanding personality to portray a man who could lead 17,000 troops so that each of them felt he was their personal leader. Carol Swarbrick is a big talent, and in addition to knocking our socks off with her powerhouse "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" her Martha built a quiet sense of home that let us know that in every meaningful sense she and the General were already married, and Waverly simply needed to acknowledge it. Her dynamite delivery of that big song also set the bar for the child performer Susan, alternately played by Olivia Spokoiny and Keaton Whitaker. Whitaker performed opening night, and she more than met the challenge, both disarmingly accomplished and charmingly natural.
With those central relationships secured, there was room for some excellent supporting roles, including Clayton Corzatte as the imperturbable old-timer, Ezekial, Anthony Curry as the frantically over-whelemed stage-manager, Mike, and the versatile Bobbi Kotula in a number of freshly-stamped comic roles. In addition, Billie Wildrick and Pamela Turpen brought great vitality to both halves of the wit known as Rita and Rhonda.
"White Christmas" is a big, beautiful, stunningly well-performed show with a generous heart and a gift of great song. As usual, there will be a lot of Christmas shows to choose from this year, and many will certainly be more innovative and unconventional, but I guarantee you won't see a more accomplished or more authentically winning production than this one.