Snow flurries return in magical ‘White Christmas’ musical
By Chad Jones

Published: November 15, 2005

SNOW IS FALLING again in San Francisco.

Last year’s holiday hit “White Christmas” has returned with a new theater and a (mostly) new cast. But the charm remains the same.

The 1954 movie starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney had similar charm but suffered from a lousy script.

The stage version, which had its world premiere last year at the Curran Theatre, was a marked improvement thanks to some tinkering by book writers David Ives and Paul Blake, whose streamlined plot allowed Irving Berlin’s songs to shine even brighter. And the movie’s transition to the stage allowed for the inclusion of nearly a dozen other Berlin songs to flesh out the show.

If you liked “White Christmas” last year, you’ll like it again this year. The new production that opened Sunday at the Orpheum Theatre is just as bright, colorful and tuneful.

And yes, it still snows up a storm at the end.

It may be a little early for Christmas, but it’s impossible to resist the charms of this utterly delightful musical.

Director Walter Bobbie and his cadre of technicians and producers are turning “White Christmas” into a franchise this year. The Bay Area production was the first to open, and next up are new productions in Los Angeles and Boston.

If this is evidence of an assembly-line show, please bring on more assembly-line shows.

In turning “White Christmas” into a multi-market product, the guys in charge forgot to remove the heart and the appeal and the sheer joy of the enterprise.

Old-fashioned in the best sense of the word, this 21/2-hour musical bubbles with happiness from beginning to end. Berlin’s songs are the primary reason, but the snap and crackle of the production doesn’t hurt.

Bobbie’s direction is whip smart. He knows why people fell in love with musicals in the good ol’ days, and he delivers retro-good cheer without stooping to smarminess or ironic winks. Corniness, yes. Cynical barbs, no. He’s not making fun of musicals — he’s celebrating their very best people-pleasing parts.

The same is true of Randy Skinner’s dazzling choreography. The big dance numbers such as “Let Yourself Go,” “Blue Skies” and especially the tap-happy “I Love a Piano” instill such Fred-and-Ginger-meets- “42nd Street” delight that even though we’re sitting happily in the audience, we feel like we’re up there dancing with those smiling chorus people.

Last year’s starring quartet was rather uneven, but things are better this year.

Graham Rowat and Kate Baldwin as lead lovers Bob Wallace and Betty Haynes have a nice spark, which is a good thing because they’re recent real-life newlyweds.

And Mark Ledbetter and Shannon O’Bryan as dancing lovers Phil Davis and Judy Haynes are marvelous. Their star turn on “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” is a show highlight.

Berkeley’s Charles Dean returns as the Vermont innkeeper and former general whose World War II division shows up on Christmas Eve to save his inn. And the marvelous Susan Mansur is back as the inn’s concierge whose Merman-like voice explodes in “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”

In minor comic roles, Frank Kopyc as a slow-moving New Englander and Tom Deckman as a fast-moving New York stage manager make the most of their brief stage time.

Another minor improvement comes in Act 2 with a scene involving the ballads “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” The awkward bumps from last year have been efficiently smoothed.

There’s a real glow surrounding “White Christmas,” and expert lighting (and snow) designer Ken Billington is only partly responsible. Every part of this production glimmers, from Anna Louizos’ snazzy sets to Carrie Robbins’ 50s-fantasy costumes to music director Ben Whiteley and his marvelous 24-piece orchestra.

In fact, the production is so slick and so lavish it feels too good to be a seasonal production; “White Christmas” seems more like a really terrific show that somehow got lost on its way to Broadway.