Given the grim tidings from everywhere these days, a longing for the seasonal comforts of happier yesteryears is understandable. If only Perry Como could come back — cardigans and all — and bring with him the prosperity of the dear old 20th century.
Still, you’d have to be in a desperately, even pathologically nostalgic mood — trawling the Internet in the wee hours for VHS copies of Lawrence Welk holiday specials, say — to derive much joy from the stage retread of “White Christmas,” a synthetically cozy trip down memory lane that opened Sunday night at the Marquis Theater on Broadway.
This efficient but bland theatrical version of the Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye movie from 1954, directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Randy Skinner, has been spreading cheer to kitsch-friendly audiences in various cities since its premiere in San Francisco in 2004.
It comes trimmed in extra numbers from the Irving Berlin songbook, as has been the custom for newfangled old-fashioned musicals for years, at least since “My One and Only” remixed the Gershwin songbook back in 1983. In addition to numbers from the movie — including the title tune, the saucy duet “Sisters,” “Snow” and the gentle lullaby “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” — we hear “Let Yourself Go,” “Blue Skies” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” among others.
The plot is a modified version of the durable let’s-put-on-a-show formula used in the movie. Bob Wallace (Stephen Bogardus, in the Crosby role) and Phil Davis (Jeffry Denman) are ex-servicemen buddies who have become a top Broadway performing duo. Bob’s wry about romance, and Phil’s a skirt-chaser, but both meet their romantic matches when an old Army pal asks them to check out his sisters, a sister act. (How do we know that Betty’s the one with personality? She’s a redhead.)
The blond Judy (Meredith Patterson) is soon swooning around a fantasy dance floor in Phil’s arms, all Fred-and-Gingery, while Bob and Betty (Kerry O’Malley) trade the kind of tart remarks that guarantee a firm attachment by the fade-out, or in this case the climactic snowfall. When the guys accompany the gals to a gig in Vermont, they discover that their old commander, Gen. Henry Waverly (Charles Dean), is now the proprietor of the inn where the sisters are to perform. Business is bad — it’s unseasonably warm, and bookings are scarce — so Bob and Phil hatch a plot to turn things around.
The Broadway veteran Mr. Bogardus is a sensitive singer with a light, clear voice nicely suited to the crystalline charms of Berlin’s lyrics. He leads the Act I tap finale, “Blue Skies,” and makes fine use of a solo spot on the sublime “How Deep Is the Ocean.” That number, paired with Ms. O’Malley’s torchy “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” in a scene set at a New York nightclub, is the evening’s vocal highlight.
Mr. Denman, lanky and lithe, dances with sleek facility in the airborne Astaire style. He opens the second act leading a buoyant production number set to “I Love a Piano.” (The colorful, spangly sets are by Anna Louizos.) With less to do, Ms. Patterson is, well, there. And blond.
But the leading roles are really just place holders for star personalities, and none of the principals brings much in the way of wattage to their assignments. The romantic heat generated by both couples put together wouldn’t melt a snowflake.
The book, by David Ives, the serial adapter of the revivals in the Encores! series, and Paul Blake, is equal parts corn and syrup. Much of the wheezy humor is handled by Susan Mansur as Martha Watson, the ex-general’s wisecracky, lovable aide-de-camp at the inn. In exasperated mode Ms. Mansur tosses off such witticisms as “You can shove it up your vacuum cleaner and turn it on high.” Fear of sugar shock precludes me from describing some of the cloying business entrusted to the able young Melody Hollis, who plays the general’s showbiz-smitten granddaughter.
Certainly the Berlin songs are sweet to hear, in nicely varied arrangements by Larry Blank. Mr. Skinner’s choreography does not dazzle with originality, but a stage-filling approximation of period style is all that’s required.
If some old-school Broadway escapism is what you’re looking for, and the prospect of singing the title tune along with a bright-beaming Broadway cast in festive sweaters fills you with seasonal cheer — at a time when cheer of any kind is in scant supply — “White Christmas” should be put somewhere on your wish list. For anyone else, however, the show will seem about as fresh and appealing as a roll of Necco wafers found in a mothballed Christmas stocking.
Irving Berlin's White Christmas (* * 1/2 out of four) is as conscientiously G-rated a musical as you'll find on Broadway. Still, it ought to have an audience advisory — for diabetics.
In fact, anyone susceptible to sugar shock should think twice before digging into this bowl of holiday treacle, which opened a limited engagement (through Jan. 4) Sunday at the Marquis Theatre.
Based on the beloved 1954 film about a pair of World War II buddies and song-and-dance men who romance a sister act at their former general's struggling inn, the show made its debut in San Francisco in 2004. Its seasonal sales potential is as obvious as the nose on Rudolph's face.
It's not just the comfortingly familiar score, to which several Berlin classics not featured in the movie have been added, among them I Love a Piano and How Deep Is the Ocean. Adapting the screenplay, David Ives and Paul Blake have left no sentimental stone unturned. The emphasis on love — between guys and dolls, but also of family and country — and honor in this tale of life after war would make any Hallmark greeting seem dry.
The general even has an angelic granddaughter, played with extra syrup by Melody Hollis, who prays on the front porch when she isn't mugging.
What this stage version does not have, obviously, is the cast that made the original White Christmas an enduring favorite. It's unfair to compare any singing actor to Bing Crosby, but in this case, it's impossible not to. Stephen Bogardus brings undeniable grace and charm to the role of Bob Wallace, but he can't overcome the thinness of the libretto and the slickness of Walter Bobbie's direction.
As Bob's love interest Betty Haynes, Kerry O'Malley is at least sultrier than the vocally inimitable Rosemary Clooney, and Meredith Patterson nimbly fills Vera-Ellen's shoes as Betty's sister, Judy. Jeffry Denman offers more fancy footwork, and a glimmer of Danny Kaye's goofiness, as Phil Davis, Bob's less-smooth partner and Judy's beau.
Each performer gets to model an array of eye-candy costumes, designed by Carrie Robbins to accommodate Anna Louizos' gingerbread-house set. If that's not enough spectacle, there's a surprise at the end that may leave you tingling or feeling soggy, depending on your perspective.
There hasn't been this much tap-dancing on a Broadway stage since "42nd Street." Yet despite its relentless effervescence, "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" is most alive in its gentler, more melancholy moments -- few as there are. Arriving in New York after multiple regional stops in the past four seasons, and aiming to establish itself as an annual holiday engagement, this somewhat mechanical show feels like a road production staffed with mostly second-tier talent. More seasonal confection than full-bodied musical theater, it coasts along on the strength of its melodious numbers and sparkling visuals, which should suffice to keep the tourist trade happy.
Retooled for the stage by David Ives and Paul Blake out of the snoozy 1954 Paramount yuletide perennial that starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, the show makes little effort to fortify the movie's flimsy plot or disguise the contrived misunderstanding that fuels its central conflict. But story is hardly the point here.
As in another vat of rehydrated eggnog being served a few blocks across town, "The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular," the disposable narrative frame serves merely as a tree on which to hang ornamental production numbers. The producers were right to add Irving Berlin's name to the title since the tunesmith's work is the major attraction. Included are a handful of numbers from the movie, plus a further mix of Berlin standards and lesser-known songs interpolated with reasonable skill into the plot.
Ten years after active duty overseas in WWII, U.S. Army men Bob Wallace (Stephen Bogardus) and Phil Davis (Jeffry Denman) are a popular song-and-dance duo, scheduled to open a Christmas revue in Florida. But womanizing Phil gets distracted by comely sister act Betty (Kerry O'Malley) and Judy Haynes (Meredith Patterson). He hijacks brooding Bob into trailing the girls to a Vermont inn, where they are booked as the entertainment.
Unseasonably warm weather and lack of snow prompts an exodus of tourists, adding to the financial woes of the inn, run by Bob and Phil's beloved commanding officer, Gen. Henry Waverly (Charles Dean). Attempting to boost business and the old man's morale, the boys reroute the planned Florida spectacular to Vermont and use their clout with "The Ed Sullivan Show" to reassemble the troops. But circumspect Betty gets the wrong idea about the scheme, spreading more bumps on the road to her hesitant romance with Bob.
Director Walter Bobbie's biggest hurdle is getting through the mummified book scenes, with their corny jokes. He's helped, however, by the fact that with 22 songs stuffed into two hours and change, it's never a long wait until the orchestra strikes up again, and the drippy dialogue gives way to polished -- if not quite dazzling -- vocals.
The show gets off to an engaging start. Even if Randy Skinner's vintage Hollywood-styled choreography isn't exactly high on imagination and the ensemble formations could use a precision-minded drill sergeant, it's a thrill to see a large cast hammering the stage in "Happy Holiday." But that delight soon fades as bland efficiency creeps in. Despite elegant teamwork from Denman and Patterson, who lead "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" and "I Love a Piano," there's something perfunctory about the execution of big numbers like these and "Blue Skies," fronted by Bogardus.
This kind of frothy, populous presentation may floor them in the hinterlands, but New York theatergoers can see more accomplished ensembles in five-night Encores! runs. Too often, it's the generous splashes of color and witty design details in Anna Louizos' inventive sets or Carrie Robbins' candy-hued costumes that catch the eye more than the cast's busy footwork.
Only in "Snow" does Bobbie seem to be having enough fun to wink at the audience, turning that buoyantly cheesy bit of winter worship into a challenge to see how many mitten- and sweater-clad revelers can be crammed into one train compartment. Elsewhere, there's a sameness to the upbeat numbers that makes the infrequent sober interludes a welcome change of pace.
These come exclusively from Crosby look-alike Bogardus and O'Malley, who inject some genuine warmth and frazzled heart into the saccharine proceedings, starting with their matching expressions of romantic skepticism in "Love and the Weather." Staged on Louizos' gorgeous New England porch, "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" is lovely, while the back-to-back heartache of O'Malley's torchy "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me" and Bogardus' haunting "How Deep Is the Ocean" provides the show's most affecting sequence -- all the more so for its clean, simple staging.
The key supporting players either try too hard or not at all. Dean sleepwalks through his scenes, making one wonder how the C.O. inspired such loyalty in his men. As the inn's concierge and resident spotlight-seeking, Merman-esque belter, Susan Mansur mugs aggressively but is a grating substitute for the film's wisecracking sourpuss, Mary Wickes. And the less said about Henry's chronically perky niece, "Broadway Sue" (Melody Hollis), the better.
But however much its charms are manufactured and its energy uneven, the show undoubtedly delivers for its target audience, particularly those old enough to feel nostalgia for the postwar era it strains to recapture. There's ample resonance in the depiction of soldiers stationed far from home and of retired servicemen struggling to redefine their role in peacetime society, not to mention preaching "count your blessings" to a crowd burdened by economic angst.
By the time the evergreen title song is heard for the second time in the enchanting snow-biz finale, most audiences will be sufficiently high on holiday spirit to sing along -- and maybe even convince themselves this synthetic approximation of an old-style Broadway-Hollywood hybrid is the real thing.