THEATRE REVIEW | ‘WHITE CHRISTMAS’
May Your Days Be Filled With Tap Extravaganzas
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Published: December 13, 2004
SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 10 - The creators of "White Christmas," a new stage adaptation of the holiday movie debuting at the Curran Theater here, certainly spare no effort to enchant us. Like party hosts chasing down guests with more hot cider, festive nut mix or sprigs of mistletoe, they pile on the blandishments with shameless abandon.
The stocking is stuffed with 18 Irving Berlin tunes, roughly twice the number that the Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye movie required. Out roll the splashy tap-dancing extravaganzas, one after another. A parade of colorful sets and costumes whiz by sweeping us from a cozy inn in Vermont to a naughty New York nightclub.
But the show's most fearsome weapon of mass seduction is little Susie, a pigtailed pipsqueak who skips on and off stage with increasing frequency as the show progresses, dispensing spunk and sass in regular doses. As if to slay the last holdouts, in Act II she gets her own big number. Sporting a wee top hat and a miniature cane, she sends her Mary Janes skyward while the outstretched paws shimmy to the rhythms of a rousing anthem celebrating the glory of showbiz.
By the time the show's beloved title tune arrives, shortly after this assault, the audience has been transformed into a single being dazed on showbiz sentiment, with eggnog for brains, you might say. Few will have the strength to resist the invitation to sing along.
There are Broadway fingerprints all over this sticky concoction, which has plans to settle in a different city each holiday season. Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller, backers of "Rent" and "Avenue Q," are among the producers. The musical is directed by Walter Bobbie, a Tony winner for the long-running revival of "Chicago," and choreographed by Randy Skinner, who drilled the tap corps in the recent Broadway retread of "42nd Street," one of the industry's first and most popular attempts to repackage an old film favorite for theatrical consumption.
Given this pedigree, it's not surprising that "White Christmas" is slick, smoothly staged and winningly performed by a cast with their own considerable Broadway chops, led by Brian d'Arcy James, a star of the quick flop "Sweet Smell of Success."
But given the rare success rate for these nostalgia-mongering movie-to-stage transcriptions, it is not surprising that the show never rises above bright, bland efficiency to achieve inspired reinvention.
As a holiday entertainment, "White Christmas" certainly has some distinct advantages over previous fizzles cooked up from a similar recipe, which would include "High Society" and last season's "Never Gonna Dance."
It can rely on audiences primed by the emotional barometer of the season to get misty-eyed on cue. Heck, even hardened cynics might get choked up, rejoicing at the absence of Scrooge, Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit. (Fortunately for traditionalists, American Conservatory Theater's perennial "Christmas Carol" is installed again at the Geary Theater, virtually next door to the Curran. Holiday kitsch fanatics could conceivably bookend an afternoon of shopping on Union Square with performances of both shows. Pardon my apoplexy.)
And "White Christmas" certainly has its share of traditional musical-comedy allure, too. It's hard to argue with a song lineup that includes the choicest cuts from the 1954 movie ("Sisters," "Count Your Blessings") alongside a fistful of Berlin standards or rarities that have been woven with ingenuity into the original storyline, which follows the exploits of a pair of ex-Army buddies and song-and-dance men (Mr. d'Arcy James and Jeffrey Denman), who put on a big show to help out their former commander, now a struggling New England innkeeper.
Scholars of the popular song may be unsettled by the stylistic incongruities that are a side effect of such cherry-picking. (To cite just one example, "Let Yourself Go," from the 1936 Fred-and-Ginger movie "Follow the Fleet," feels out of place in the 50's.) But Mr. d'Arcy James, who's got more than a little Jolson in his soul, has a swell voice, and knows how to put across a tune of any vintage, as does Anastasia Barzee, who plays his love interest-slash-antagonist.
Mr. Denman and Meredith Patterson, as the other half of the sister act that provides the show with a neatly symmetrical romantic plot, are fleet and ingratiating dance partners. Susan Mansur is a snappy asset as yet another of the show's trademarked crowd-pleasing devices, the lovable, wisecracking termagant. (Mary Wickes from the movie, with a Southern drawl.) And the sets by Anna Louizos are a continual treat, not to mention models of technical virtuosity, allowing Mr. Bobbie to keep the musical bobbing briskly between a daunting variety of settings.
But a Scrooge might note that the new book by David Ives and Paul Blake retains all the flimsy contrivances of the movie, and he'd sourly add that their rusty surfaces are no longer gilded by the irreplaceable Crosby and Kaye. He might idly wonder why Mr. d'Arcy James and Mr. Denman perform the gender-switched reprise of "Sisters" so tentatively, while Crosby and Kaye memorably camped it up freely a half-century ago. Even more scroogily, he might note the paucity of invention and artistry in Mr. Skinner's choreography and snarl at the wholesale stylistic borrowings from the "Get Happy" number in the film "Summer Stock" for the act-closing "Blue Skies."
Known as he is for attention to detail, he would probably even condemn Ms. Patterson's white-blond wig, which turns her into a look-alike of her comic foils, a pair of peroxided chorines. And he'd snicker at some of Carrie Robbins's more questionable costumes, like the tight sweaters on the chorus boys in the finale, more appropriate for a holiday fete in today's Castro district than wholesome Vermont in the 1950's.
I fear he might even have something uncharitable to say about little Raquel Castro, the pigtailed dynamo who plays Susie.
But enough! Why invite that sourpuss to the party? He's got his hands full this time of year anyway.