November 25, 2008

A Good Old-Fashioned "White Christmas"

The holidays are upon us. And so are the holiday shows. The 76th version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is already two weeks into its seven-week run. The Big Apple Circus pitched its tent in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park the day before Halloween. The Nutcracker is due to kick off at the New York City Ballet the day after Thanksgiving. And starting Dec. 1, Nutcracker: R Rated, a naughtier spin on the tale, opens at Theater for the New City down in the East Village.

Meanwhile, the Cirque du Soleil folks have brought Wintuk, their holiday-aimed extravaganza, back to the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden for the second year in a row. But this time, it may get some head-to-head competition when the clown-show Slava’s Snowshow opens in Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre on Dec. 7.

But the big news this season is the arrival of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, which opened at the Marquis Theatre on Sunday night. I can take or leave these holiday offerings but my sister Joanne is crazy about them. In fact, it would be hard to find someone with more holiday spirit than my sister. She’s already scouring the TV listings for the annual showings of holiday specials and Christmas movies. And the 1954 classic “White Christmas” has always been one of her favorites.

It starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as a famous song-and-dance team and Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen as an up-and-coming sister act. The plot, such as it is, centers around their romantic entanglements and combined efforts to put on a show to save a friend’s country inn but it’s really just an excuse for them all to perform lots and lots of great Berlin songs (click here to see a trailer for the movie).

The stage version, which debuted in San Francisco in 2004, has been joyfully making its away across the country over the past four holiday seasons. But, as one of its producers told a workshop I attended in May, he and his partners hadn't planned to bring it to Broadway because they thought we New Yorkers were too jaded for such an old-fashioned kind of show. I don’t know what made them change their mind. But I suspect that, just as they predicted, most New York theatergoers will find the show corny.

This White Christmas is such a faithful recreation of the movie that I wondered if Stephen Bogardus had been cast because he so much resembles Crosby. Or if they’d made him up to look that way. David Ives, who usually performs a similar task for the Encores! series, adapted the screenplay along with Paul Blake but they don’t do much to update it. Is there anyone under 50 who gets references to Topo Gigio, Senor Wences and other regulars on the old “Ed Sullivan Show”?

Still, it looks as though no expenses have been spared. There are 33 people in the cast and another 25 in the orchestra pit. Costume designer Carrie Robbins has whipped up scores of festive costumes. And set designer Anna Louizos, ably assisted by lighting designer Ken Billington, turns out a procession of picture-perfect sets, building up to the grand and appropriately snowy finale.

Director Walter Bobbie, another Encores! vet, keeps the whole thing moving. But the show’s MVP is choreographer Randy Skinner who concocts one crowd-pleasing dance number after another, most of them winningly performed by Jeffry Denman and Meredith Patterson (click here to see a trailer for the show).

The resulting confection may prove too sweet for folks who prefer their musicals spiked with irony. But there is an audience for this show: families who’ve already seen the other holiday offerings, tourists who still think of Broadway as a place where musicals are bright and happy things, and people who just love Christmas and all the sentiment that comes with it. People like my sister Joanne. She loved Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

1 comment:

Esther said...

I'm so glad you and your sister enjoyed White Christmas. I love big, corny sweet musicals as well as more edgier fare. It's funny about not updating the references, I noticed something similar in Speed-the-Plow. There's a reference to Pee Wee Reese and I wondered how many people in the audience got that!