SALT LAKE CITY – Christmas is here, and with the festive season comes a variety of effervescent events and stage shows. The 1954 musical film White Christmas, with its title song holding the record as the all-time bestselling single, is beloved by nostalgic cinephiles and has become a Yuletide favorite.
The stage adaption, christened Irving Berlin’s White Christmas to add oomph, was kicked around in various incarnations before sliding onto Broadway for two limited-run Christmastime productions in 2008 and 2009. Audiences came in droves, and the box office toppled all competitors. But critics were not just unkind, they were caustic. While lauding the production values and the seasoned performers, the detractors were as stingy as Ebenezer Scrooge.
I have been very impressed by previous Pioneer Theatre productions. And this breezy White Christmas is a largely pleasant diversion from the holiday rush. The show is buoyed immeasurably by Irving Berlin musical masterpieces and is capable of warming its audience. Everyone on stage and behind is clearly trying their hardest to create a magical holiday spectacle, but the show lacks inspired direction and invention from Paul Mason Barnes to overcome the cut-and-paste script. Despite the fine renditions here of the classic American standards, the new or expanded songs are shoehorned in and either overstuff the show or awkwardly restate plot points. Worse, as the actors rush to the next song, nearly all of character development and charm found in the movie are shortchanged or excised completely. For example, why are the male leads at odds but steadfastly remain partners?
The basic elements of the acknowledged thin plot remain. Two ex-soldiers provide a let’s-put-on-a-show-in-a-barn rescue for their former commanding officer. A sister act was scheduled to perform their nightclub act at the general’s near-bankrupt Vermont lodge but the song-and-dance duo brings in its large Broadway company to divert their wartime hero and boost revenue at the inn. Romance and contrived misunderstandings ensue. The resulting show brings snow and success – for both the hostelry business and the two couplings.
Straitjacketed by the threadbare script, the four Equity leads gamely navigate their roles with verve and determination. Tally Sessions plays the level-headed Bob Wallace and Tim Falter is the skirt-chasing Phil. For the most part there is serviceable chemistry between the two, and they offer smooth harmonies and crisp moves, beginning with the rousing “Happy Holiday”/“Let Yourself Go.” Sessions appears more consigned than connected to his character but his is the show’s most underwritten role. Falter, with his broad charm and a voice as strong as his dancing, gives a polished performance and effortlessly makes the role his own. Genuine romantic sparks come from Kaitlyn Davidson’s bubbly Judy opposite Falter, and the pairing is delightful, especially in the “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” Backed by the chorus, Davidson and Falter make “I Love a Piano” a crowd-pleasing tap number despite its lackluster staging. An on-stage force of nature, Amy Justman conveys apt stubbornness as the straight-laced Betty, a role she understudied on Broadway. As evident in her role as Susan in the 2006 Company telecast on PBS, her singing is superb, and she inhabits her character. Justman displays sultry charm and wonderfully vibrant vocals in the torchy “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” and the song then becomes a heartfelt “How Deep Is the Ocean” duet with Sessions.
The role of the inn’s busybody manager has been expanded and concocted as an ex-vaudevillian Ethel Merman Lite, and frequent PTC actress Mary Fanning Driggs makes the most of her brassy comic role. She’s entertaining with her “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” solo and, with Davidson and Justman, “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” is bright and cheery. Dick Decareau amiably plays the grumpy curmudgeon General Waverly and manages to bring poignancy to the wooden role, even when he delivers the painfully sentimental speech near the end of the show. John Shuman steals scenes in a small part, with his “hi-yup” delivery as the droll local handyman, and, with local favorite Anne Stewart Mark, Shuman provides true comic relief in the “Snow” scene. Alexia “Ally” Ioannides is the moppet who plays Susan, the general’s young granddaughter. Like the innkeeper part, the Susan role is rewritten, and she becomes a smitten Broadway Baby. (Except for the general and his handyman, now each of the many characters is in, has been in, or aspires to be in show business.) The cloying Ioannides makes a valiant effort to belt her “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” reprise.
There are many dance pieces thrown in to spice up the production, and many yearn to approach a Busby Berkeley blockbuster. The 16-member ensemble energetically executes Dirk Lumbard’s choreography, but his work simmers when it should have red-hot sizzle. With multiple set changes, audiences will be impressed by the seamless and quick changes in the scenery, crafted by PTC resident George Maxwell. But not equally impressed with K.L. Alberts’ costume design. Alberts was clearly budget-strapped, and it shows. The costumes needed the lush fabrics and spectacle of sparkling colors that have identified staged White Christmas productions.
Nevertheless, there are those wonderful Berlin songs. Each is showcased by a swinging full-bodied 17-piece orchestra, under Michael Horsley’s musical direction and conducting. The lush orchestrations coupled with wonderful vocal arrangements are a genuine treat. It would take more than a mediocre production of White Christmas to make the composer’s musical gifts anything less than a treasure trove.
Seeing the Berlin standards come to life is a prescribed cure for the holiday depressed. And this show may make audiences feel all Christmas-y while humming its tunes as they exit the theater. But, considering its multiple shortcomings in story and staging, PTC’s White Christmas will leave musical-theater enthusiasts shivering in the cold.