Thursday, December 4, 2008

Holiday Corn

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Starring Stephen Bogardus, Kerry O’Malley, Jeffry Denman, Meredith Patterson, Charles Dean, Susan Mansur

Performances from November 14, 2008 to January 4, 2009
Marquis Theatre
1535 Broadway

Irving Berlin's White Christmas (photo: Joan Marcus)
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas wears old-fashioned corniness on its sleeve: all it wants to do is make audiences feel good about the holiday season, disregarding however many cliches it lumbers through to get there. Despite empty stretches, it does the job.

Based on the 1954 movie starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, IBWC (to coin an acronym) is the story of two popular song-and-dance men who follow a couple of attractive song-and-dance sisters to Vermont, where they find that their commanding general from World War II runs a not-so-successful inn. Hilarious hijinx and romantic entanglements ensue, along with several song-and-dance numbers, until all is well at the end, and everybody beams singing “White Christmas.”

It’s easy to be a Scrooge about this show, to roll your eyes at every dated reference or lousy joke, or wince each time the overly aggressive (but oh so cute!) general’s granddaughter is at center stage. Eventually, though, you shrug your shoulders and give in–thanks primarily to a roll call of Irving Berlin’s best songs, IBWC glides harmlessly past as an unessential but peppy holiday entertainment.

Of course, building a musical around Berlin’s songs is a no-brainer, and IBWC has been a popular touring show around the country since opening in San Francisco in 2004. Any show that begins with the one-two punch of “Happy Holidays” and the beloved title song will be hard-pressed to keep up such buoyant energy, and, to be sure, IBWC sags–despite inventive director Walter Bobbie’s best efforts, the latter stages of Act I and parts of Act II are dragged out.

Part of the problem is Randy Skinner’s choreography, which has a certain sameness, particularly in the many tap-dance numbers, which seem to go on forever with little variety. Anna Louizos’ clever sets and Carrie Robbins’ colorful costumes have fun with the exaggerated sparkle of ‘50s technicolor musicals–which the movie White Christmas was–to lightly comic effect.

In a proficient if unexceptional cast, Broadway vet Stephen Bogardus expertly underplays the leading man, making him a perfect stand-in for Bing Crosby, who always made dancing, singing and acting appear effortless. Bogardus’ renditions of Berlin standards as the title song and “How Deep Is the Ocean” are the show’s inarguable high points, and he and co-star Kerry O’Malley have a low-key chemistry that overrides the not quite funny dialogue and not quite touching relationships (here it must be noted that co-book writer David Ives is unable to perform the expert surgery he does in his Encores! adaptations).

Still, those dozen and a half Berlin songs–culminating in an audience singalong on “White Christmas” and an encore of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”–ensure that the Marquis Theater houses an enjoyable holiday bauble.

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