Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, PlayhouseSquare

There are gobs of traditions connected to the holidays, and for many the 1954 film White Christmas is one of them. It’s easy to get swept away by that glorious Technicolor flick, especially at the conclusion when a battalion of soldiers shows up to help aging General Waverly hang onto his inn in Vermont. Hell, I cry every time.

The promotional image for this musical version of that film, now at PlayhouseSquare, is a snow globe, and that is actually a very accurate representation of the show itself. It’s gorgeous to look at (and the songs are enjoyable to listen to), but the emotions that the film generates are absent, sealed under the glossy surface of a show that has plenty of eye candy but not enough heart.

As you probably know, two World War II army buddies Bob and Phil (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the movie) take their singin’ and dancin’ act on the road after the war and become big stars. One night, as a favor to another friend from their platoon, they watch a sister act featuring Betty and Judy Haynes (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in the flick), and they are smitten. Soon, they all find themselves on a train going north, as the women are booked into holiday gig at a Vermont inn, and the boys follow along.

There are many occasions for set changes, and the scenic design by Anna Louizos is always satisfying. Combined with costume designer Carrie Robbins’ wonderful period duds, the train and the inn and the nightclub scenes all feel perfectly polished.

Of course, there are Berlin songs galore, all handled with professional expertise, including faves from the movie such as “Snow” and “Blue Skies.” Some of the tunes come complete with big tap dance routines, such as the show-stopping “I Love a Piano” (not in the film) that opens Act Two.

There’s a nice local connection in the cast since Cliff Bemis, who plays The Snoring Man and Ezekiel, was one of the four cast members of the musical Jacques Brel...back in the 1970s. Brel was instrumental in saving PlayhouseSquare, so it’s fitting that Bemis can trod these boards again. And happily, he’s quite funny in both his parts.

Trouble is, the leads are competent but they never make an emotional connection with the audience. As Bob, James Clow sings well but has almost negative personal magnetism on stage. Jeremy Benton is more lively as Phil, and you keep waiting for him to capture some of the zany Kaye-like vibe, but it never happens. As the sisters, Kaitlyn Davidson as Judy dances up a storm and Trista Moldovan as Betty croons prettily, but neither resonate as distinctive characters.

And since this script never sets up General Waverly as a fully-involved character, the excellent Conrad John Shuck can do little but pose and posture when the emotional climax of the story should take place. In short, my tissues remained firmly ensconced in my purse.

But there’s no denying how gorgeous the stage looks, especially at the end when the audience is literally enveloped in a postcard-perfect snowy scene. That’s something you’re not likely to see at any other theater in town, which is why PlayhouseSquare is always a wonderful gift—at the holidays or any other time.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Through Dec. 14 at PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

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