REVIEW: of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas – the Musical, running through December 30, 2018 at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, Suffolk County, New York (2 East Main Street, Smithtown, New York); viewed here November 23.
Forget herald angels, provident stars, gifting magi, or even Santa Claus. For Irving Berlin, the true miracle of Christmas is showbiz, with its sovereign power to right all wrongs and heal all hearts.
Such is the essential theme of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas – the Musical, now performing at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts in New York’s Suffolk County (as well as in 40-plus other licensed amateur and/or semi-professional productions around North America, according to the show’s rights administrators at rnh.com), with an upbeat and nimble cast gamely and muscularly embracing Berlin’s giddy celebration of secular, song-and-dance Yuletide force majeure.
Screen to Stage
Anyone familiar with the 1954 film on which this stage version (originated at the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre in 2000) is based is already versed in the storyline’s incredibly cheeky organizing geometry. First, there are these two bigtime showbiz guys – the songwriting/performing/Broadway-producing dynamic duo of Wallace and Davis (Bob and Phil to their intimates) – played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the film. They meet up with a couple of up-and-coming showbiz gals – the Haynes Sisters, Betty and Judy (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in the film), who apparently ply the 1950s East Coast club circuit with an act consisting primarily of singing about being sisters.
Almost supernaturally, each member of each duo encounters in the other his or her temperamental doppelgänger, with the freewheeling Phil and Judy finding instantaneous amorous rapport, while the more emotionally arrested Bob and downright frigid Betty find romance more in the breach than the observance, misreading each other’s motives and sniping at each other’s flaws like a latter-day Benedick and Beatrice in Eisenhower-Era mufti.
Through a ruse of Phil’s, the guys follow the gals to Vermont, where the gals have been engaged for a Christmas performance at a rustic inn. In a witty inversion of gospel narrative, however, the inn is empty, owing to an unseasonably warm and snowless ski season. The Haynes show is cancelled.
But, lo, the forlorn inn turns out to be owned and operated by Bob’s and Phil’s former army commander, the gruff but lovable General Waverly. Thereby hangs the show’s major subplot, and bid at social messaging. Old soldiers merit reverence, you see, so Wallace and Davis will stage a blockbuster show in the General’s barn, and – with the panache of White-Way Prosperos summoning cloud-capped towers – they’ll conjure a lucrative full house to boot. The General’s solvency will be ensured (and the Haynes Sisters will become stars).
Two-acts’ worth of further romantic and logistical complications ensue, peppered with other colorful characters such as the General’s big-voiced, red-hot-mama of a housekeeper, Martha; his bookish and precocious granddaughter, Susan; and his lugubrious yokel handyman, Ezekiel; and it’s all garlanded (more lavishly than is the film) with a sugar plum score out of the Berlin catalogue’s boundless cornucopia – songs such as “Blue Skies,” “I Love a Piano,” “How Deep Is the Ocean,” and the lesser-known but engaging “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” (retrieved from the score of Berlin’s failed Miss Liberty).
God Bless Us, Every One…
The Smithtown cast’s four principals form a winsome quartet. As the Haynes Sister, Emily Edwards and Adriana M. Scheer certainly prove more plausibly sororal than the film’s podge-and-reed pairing of Clooney and V-E (who beggared credulity with lyrics about interchangeably wearing “every little thing”). Edwards, as Betty, and Scheer, as Judy, both perform with conviction, energy and commendably emergent musical theater chops. In the more vocally showy role, Edwards offers warmth of tone and condign sultriness, while Scheer’s brighter soubrette sound effectively complements a performance more conspicuously centered on her considerable dance ability.
Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, played respectively by Michael Mingoia and Ryan Cavanagh, offer similar contrasts. Mingoia carries off an affable and tastefully low-key performance as the taciturn senior member of the team, crooning Berlin tunes with disarming lightness and an endearing lyricism which obviate any comparison to the ur-sounds of the more darkly eructative Crosby; while Cavanagh, possessed of an apt baritone, makes his biggest impression via his Kaye-like terpsichorean bona fides. (Cavanagh’s and Scheer’s glides and high steps in “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing” are among the production’s most memorably executed numbers.)
As Martha, the meddlesome housekeeper with the heart of gold who harbors spousal designs on the General, Anne Marie Finnie brings sass and bravura to the proceedings, not to mention an outsized voice that registers somewhere at the intersection of Ethel Merman, Kate Smith, and Cher.
Young Gabby Blum plays the General’s niece, Susan (alternating performances with Cordelia Comando, not viewed here) with presence and a sure sense of timing. She also persuasively finesses Susan’s own showbiz transfiguration from studious bookworm to belting little Broadway prodigy. Her climactic delivery of the flashy old Al Jolson chestnut “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” reclaimed from the Berlin bottom drawer, is enormously self-assured – claptrap in the finest sense. Still, is anyone else discomfited by the implication that a preadolescent is more hygienically edified by Tin Pan Alley than by immersion in core curriculum? Or, in this post-JonBenet age, that the spectacle of said preadolescent donning a boa and channeling Sophie Tucker is unadulterated family fun?
Eugene Dailey plays the non-singing General Waverly with serviceable stolidity, while a beaming, tap-happy supporting ensemble, some dozen strong, pleasantly and vigorously dresses the stage as needed.
Ringing the Changes
The stage adaptation (by David Ives and Paul Blake) departs from the film in a number of respects, not all of them evidently advantageous. Bob’s failure to notice that he’s on a train traveling north through New England rather than south toward Miami – until he reaches Providence, Rhode Island – is almost inexcusably farfetched (unless he’s unconsciously conspiring in his own deceit – an intriguing prospect left unexplored in this production, as are most nuances of psychology). The MacGuffin of the plot now revolves around Betty’s misperception of Bob as involved in a real estate scam, rather than the original’s more thematically coherent notion that he’s exploiting the General for publicity’s sake. The script errs in retaining obscure and dated references to arcana such as Topo Gigio and Señor Wences at which none but the most antiquarian of television buffs will chuckle. And the film’s “drag sequence” is strangely displaced to a non-operative plot node in the second act.
Still, as in the film, the relations of the sexes are treated with equanimity and devoid of chauvinism. Women are portrayed variously as smart, talented, nurturing and, yes, at times even conniving and predatory, but never condescended to, exploited, or victimized.
The orchestral score, it should be noted, is not performed live, but via pre-recorded tracks. This may give the purist pause; but the lush and sophisticated orchestrations by Larry Blank (and vocal and dance music arrangements by Bruce Pomahac) acquit themselves with remarkable effectiveness – one more Christmas miracle.
The long-awaited title song, of course, arrives at the optimal moment, along with the snow of which it sings. So instantly identifiable is the lilt of that melody, it’s easy to overlook what a musicological oddity “White Christmas” really is, constructed with a naïveté of counterpoint so tonally illicit, rife with chromaticism and implied parallel fifths, it shouldn’t work at all. Yet there it is, a fair candidate (as Berlin himself modestly vouched it) for consideration as “the greatest song every written.” Miracle, indeed.
Getting Right with Berlin
The Smithtown production of White Christmas is directed (and costumed) by Ronald Green III, with solid musical direction by Melissa Coyle and ambitious choreography by M.E. Junge. Green could tighten his players’ pacing here and there; he might restrain from the superfluity of his offstage smoke machine; and he might look to the odd and repeated misreading of the word “ayup” (a philological gag about the Down East colloquialism that ought to be pronounced “AH-yup” but here solecistically rendered as “uh-YUP!”). Still, he has marshaled a talented and bright-eyed cadre of revelers to suitable heights of jollity, and he pulls off a surprising and audience-rousing meteorological coup de théâtre as the show’s capstone.
Finally, while there’s no call to get too deep in the analytic weeds, it might be observed that the characters of White Christmas could be construed as bright-side, musical comedy versions of precisely the kind of characters that populated anomie-riven fiction and film noir of the entire post-World War II era – men and women displaced, rudderless, unfamilied, beset with anxieties over finding meaning in a society materially opulent but spiritually unmoored.
That’s not the intent of this White Christmas, of course. Indeed, it’s rather the kind of brief Great Britain’s National Theatre might someday follow in its seemingly endless pursuit of reconstituting American classics along darker lines. But it’s food for thought. After all, Irving Berlin was not only the most profitable balladeer of Christmas in history; he was also the troubadour par excellence of the entire American Century, the writer of our unofficial second national anthem (“God Bless America”), and an uncannily acute if guileless bard of the American psyche. If Bob and Phil and Betty and Judy are mere puppets, and White Christmas a mere jury-rigged dramatic mummery, there’s still the tidal pull of Berlin’s melodies, and the oracular purity of his lyrics to savor and be schooled by – songs of love, optimism, aspiration, heroism, and hope.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: running from November 10 through December 30, 2018 at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, Smithtown, New York (http://www.smithtownpac.org); remaining performances are December 16, 23 and 30 at 3 p.m.; and December 20, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28, and 29 at 8 p.m. Additional information is available here; tickets are available here.