The stage musical, with libretto by David Ives and Paul Blake, and music and lyrics by Irvin Berlin, is loosely based on the 1954 film, “White Christmas, which was based on the 1942 film, “Holiday Inn.”
It’s 1944. America and its Allies are involved in the second world war. Bob Wallace and Phil Davis are doing a USO-type show for the troops of the 151st Division. Not only is there a war hanging over the heads of the troops, but their beloved commanding officer, Major General Thomas F. Waverly, is about to be relieved of his duties. At the end of the show-within a show, a musical tribute is given in honor of Waverly.
As the rest of the story unfolds, Wallace and Davis, following the war, become celebrities doing night club, radio and TV gigs, including appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Years later, the duo finds that General Waverly’s ski lodge in Vermont is about to be foreclosed upon, and along with two cuties and a host of entertainers, they put on a fund-raising tribute for the General, and, of course, save the lodge and find love.
As has to happen in any escapist musical, boy-girl meet and argue and make up (in this plot two boys and two girls), a crisis or two has to emerge and be solved, and all ends well, since, as one of the show’s songs says, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”
All of the required audience pleasers are present. There’s a cute little talented girl, a lovable local yokel, adorable dancing girls, handsome dancing boys, and a big-mouthed sarcastic aging female.
In the course of the action, the cast and audience is humming and singing such classics as, “White Christmas,” “Let Yourself Go,” “Sisters,” “Count Your Blessings, Instead of Sheep, and “Blue Skies.” There is even an audience sing along.
The songs are shoe-horned in, sometimes with no real reason other than that Irving Berlin wrote them. This is no book musical in the ilk of “Fiddler on the Roof” or “West Side Story.” It’s no thinking person’s script, such as “Next to Normal.” That matters little. That’s not the purpose of this type of show. It’s pure entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It’s “42nd Street” and “Singing in the Rain.” It’s meant to be fantasy, feel good stuff.
“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” has been hailed as “a holiday day card come to life,” and, that it is. Snow falls on the stage and the audience, Christmas trees shine brightly, and there are big dancing and singing production numbers. The whole experience is all decked out in the holiday mood. As one of the songs says, “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”
The touring production does not have great production qualities. Most of the sets are painted drops, no electronic special effects, just good old fashioned, old time techniques. Curtains close between each scene to allow time to set up for the next scene. It, like the script, is a flashback to the past.
The production, under the direction of Randy Skinner, who is also the choreographer, is filled with creative dancing and gimmicks. Those who left at intermission missed the exciting show stopper, “I Love a Piano,” which opened Act II and concluded to extended applause.
The cast is uneven. The male leads need to sparkle. Think Donald O’Connor, Gene Kelly, Tommy Tune, Danny Kaye. Jeremy Benton comes close as Phil. He has a nice connection with his female “love,” the pert and talented Kaitlyn Davison. He sings well and dances even better. On the other hand, James Clow lacks the charisma and stage magnetism for creating a believable Bob. He displays little emotional connection to his lady love, the big voiced, stand-offish Trista Moldovan (Betty).
Pamela Myers delights as the Ethel Merman-ish Martha, the Inn’s take-charge lady. Conrad John Schuck was correctly military-stuffy as General Waverly.
Though his talents are basically wasted, Clevelanders should be thrilled to see Elyrian Cliff Bemis on the State’s stage, a stage which he helped save. He was cast a member of “Jacques Brel,” which played, in an extended run, in the lobby of the State Theatre while money was raised to stop the destruction of what is now the PlayhouseSquare theatre complex.
BTW...”Jacques Brel’s” director, Joe Garry, and Bemis’s fellow cast member, David O. Frazier, were in the “White Christmas” audience to see their old buddy portray Mr. Snoring Man and Ezekiel Foster, the local yokel. Bemis, a Baldwin Wallace graduate, who is often seen in TV commercials (think "Hi, Cliff here for IHOP") has established a music theatre scholarship at his alma mater.
The dance corps was excellent, as were the group choral sounds. The large local orchestra, which had a nice upbeat tone, sometimes overpowered the singers.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” is theatrical fluff that makes for a nice marzipan treat for the holidays. Don’t go expecting a great American musical. It’s intended to entertain, not teach a lesson or give advice on how to solve the world’s problems. If you ”Let Yourself Go,” the show should add to your “Happy Holiday.”
“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” is scheduled to run through December 14 , 2014. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org