By J. Scott Hill
Many of us have favorite holiday movies that have become parts of our Christmas traditions. For some, rewatching Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, and/or Elf are as essential as gift giving and tree trimming. It makes sense that theatrical producers would want to try to put more people in seats by adapting these treasures for the stage. Theatergoers are much like churchgoers: many only attend once a year, at Christmastime. A successful Christmas show is a surefire big earner.
The big earner at the 1954 movie box office was White Christmas. The film starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and Mary Wickes (one of the most recognizable comedic character actresses of all time).
White Christmas the movie is near perfection. Crosby and Clooney croon Irving Berlin standards. Vera-Ellen dances. Danny Kaye and Mary Wickes hurl enough hard-boiled barbs to puncture any over-inflated sentimentality. There’s even a bit of cutting satire aimed at Ed Sullivan and the cronyism in the entertainment industry.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, David Ives and Paul Blake’s 2004 stage adaptation of the 1954 movie, makes two major departures from its source material, one very good and one pretty bad. Mary Wickes’s part in the film has been transformed and expanded from wisecracking maid Emma Allen to innkeeper and former vaudeville star Martha Watson. These changes fill out a woefully underutilized character. To the show’s discredit, however, the satire has been cut out. The thinly veiled send-up of Ed Sullivan has been replaced with the very thing it satirized, The Ed Sullivan Show. While the audience is spared the presence of an Ed Sullivan impersonator, a giant sign with the name and logo of The Ed Sullivan Show hangs center stage. There are even jokes about Señor Wences and Topo Gigio. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas makes it very clear that its principal action takes place at Christmastime of 1954, even though The Ed Sullivan Show was called Toast of the Town until 1955, and Topo Gigio did not appear on Sullivan until 1962. These gaffes typify the minor errors and inconsistencies that add up to make Irving Berlin’s White Christmas a lesser adaptation of this material than it could and should be.
The Broadway in Chicago production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas has its own hits and misses. The modular sets by Anna Louizos and Kenneth Foy are gorgeous and detailed. The orchestra, under the baton of John Visser, is outstanding. Mary Peeples, the girl playing Susan Waverly (the General’s granddaughter) during the performance I saw, has one of the strongest, clearest, and most pitch-perfect voices of the entire ensemble.
The best performance in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is that of Ruth Williamson as Martha Watson. The way this character has been retooled for the stage allows Williamson to make this character as big as she wants, but she goes huge judiciously. Her medley of “Let Me Sing” and “I’m Happy” is by far the best number in the show.
Williamson’s success points to the overall failure of this production. The best number in a show called Irving Berlin’s White Christmas should be Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” “White Christmas” is often cited as the top-selling single of all time. As Bob Wallace, John Scherer does not give a particularly good performance. I found myself wondering if Scherer were a last-minute replacement; he gave the impression of someone being fed their lines through an earbud. His singing is demure, almost saccharine, when a little oomph is in order.
Amy Bodnar plays Betty Haynes with more spunk. Her singing on “Sisters” is bright and cheery, if unpolished. “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” is supposed to be her big number at a swanky New York nightclub. When Bodnar, looking vampy and gorgeous in a velvety little black dress, turns to face the audience just before “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” the audience is ready to be seduced by an evocative Peggy Lee-type chanteuse; Bodnar’s interpretation is bright and cheery, if unpolished.
The large ensemble, other than the two leads, is fairly strong, but not strong enough to carry the weight of an entire show on their backs. Randy Skinner’s choreography is as simplistic as a chair aerobics routine in a nursing home rec center.
A beautiful set, a delightful orchestra, a talented kid, and the resplendent Ruth Williamson do not provide enough force to squeeze a diamond out of this lump of Christmas coal. I’m dreaming of a stage adaptation of White Christmas, just like the film I used to know; Broadway in Chicago’s production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is not even close.
1 ½ STRAS
(“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas”, presented by Broadway in Chicago, runs through January 2, 2011, at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago. 800-745-3000.)
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas The Musical on Broadway and on National Tour – Broadway Tickets; National Tour Tickets
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas production photos by Tanner Photography.
* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas – Bank of America Theatre (formerly LaSalle Bank Theatre) – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago