December 2007

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Nov. 20, 2007 – Jan. 5, 2008 Sony Centre for the Performing Arts Toronto
A Sumptuous Holiday Confection
by Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
A newly minted adaptation of the beloved 1954 holiday musical film, White Christmas is currently onstage at The Sony Centre for The Performing Arts. The production is presented by LOWE’S and Produced by Kevin McCollum, Paul Blake, The Producing Office, Dan Markley and Sonny Everett in association with Paramount Pictures. The plot centers around a couple of Broadway song and dance men, who are also WW II veterans. Through a variety of propinquitous circumstances, they find themselves on a midnight train to Vermont in an effort to save a failing Vermont ski lodge plagued by a lack of snow and run by their former commanding officer. Of course, part of the general propinquity involves the addition of two gorgeous, talented sisters who are booked and simultaneously un-booked to perform at the very same Vermont Inn.

The original hit movie boasted music from the prolific American composer Irving Berlin and starred box office giants of their day Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. The film was directed by the great Hungarian talent, Michael Curtiz, and the original screen writers of the witty script were veteran Hollywood stalwarts Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. The title tune, “White Christmas” was actually written by Berlin for the 1942 musical Holiday Inn (which starred Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds), and won the Oscar for Best Song. The hit tune was also warbled by Crosby in 1946’s Blue Skies and is the undisputed best-selling record in history, having sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.

As is inevitably the case when material is adapted from another medium (such as a book, straight play or film) to become a theatrical musical, some amount of character development, subtext, plot and cast fall by the wayside. This is an unfortunate but necessary evil in creating a tight production with salient interstitial expository material punctuated by appropriately placed musical numbers. After all — as entertaining as the show may be — no one wants to sit through a four hour version of Hello Dolly because the writers were married to every nuance from Thornton Wilder’s legitimate play, The Matchmaker (on which the hit Jerry Herman musical is based).

That being said, David Ives and Producer Paul Blake have done an exceptional job in adapting the book from one of our best-loved musical films for this stage adaptation, which first debuted in San Francisco in 2004. Not only are all of the original memorable Irving Berlin tunes intact (“White Christmas”, “How Deep is the Ocean”, “Sisters”, “Snow”, “Counting my Blessings Instead of Sheep” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”), but several more Berlin gems have been thrown in for good measure, including “Let Yourself Go” (a big hit for the Boswell Sisters), “I Love a Piano” and “Snooky Ookums” (both performed by Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in MGM’s Easter Parade).

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is brought to the stage by a talented cast of Canadian and American actors as well as a first rate all-Canadian orchestra under the direction of Rob Berman. The orchestrations and arrangements by Larry Blank and Bruce Pomahac have freshened and revitalized the musical material, without detracting in the least from the familiar sounds of the original film orchestrations, which many of us carry around in our heads.

The four leading actors are real-life married couple and musical theatre veterans, Canadian Graham Rowat and American Kate Baldwin (assuming the roles of Bob Wallace/Bing Crosby and Betty Haynes/Rosemary Clooney) and New York based Broadway actors Tony Yazbick (Phil Davis/Danny Kaye) and Shannon O’Bryan (Judy Hayes/Vera Ellen). This talented quartet has cast aside the idea of impersonating the original actors from the film and have instead created their own appealing characters. All four actors are multiple threats — singing, dancing and acting with phenomenal skill and enthusiasm. The supporting cast gave an equally excellent performance and the chorus was a fine-tuned and exciting explosion of Broadway-style dance of the highest order.

The uber-talented Kate Hennig (in a last minute replacement for the ailing and equally talented Nora McLellan) was a total delight as the Vermont Inn manager cum love interest, Martha Watson. The memorable (and significantly more minor) role was portrayed in the Paramount film by the versatile character actress, Mary Wickes. Ms. Hennig as Nora has not only developed a muti-dimensional flesh and blood character with a semi-scandalous vaudeville show biz past, but nearly steals the show with the dynamic number, “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”. It’s no surprise that this is a Nora who will catch the eye of General Waverly by the beginning of the second act.

Tony Award-winning director John Bobbie and choreographer Randy Skinner have done a masterful job with the staging of this production. As a director, Bobbie has aided the actors in creating moments of depth within the gossamer-winged structure of the musical comedy — no easy task. Costume designer Carrie Robbins, set designer Anna Louizos and lighting designer Ken Billington have conspired together to present a 'live' theatrical experience that takes on the fabulous patina of old three-tone Technicolor. The colour pallet was so sumptuous that it looked as if it had been created under the direction of Natalie Kalmus herself, in collaboration perhaps with the great Cedric Gibbons and Irene Sharaff.

It’s a lovely surprise that during the second act Finale, the fourth wall is joyously broken down, as the entire stage, cast and house are gently snowed upon by the most authentic looking fake snow that this reporter has ever seen. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is a satisfying and entertaining holiday show for the entire family that is not to be missed.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
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