Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

Music & Lyrics Irving Berlin

Book by David Ives and Paul Blake

Directed by Lee Buckholtz

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 

Brian Bowman, Sarah Ann Koster, Matthew Brennan & Julie Evins
 in White Christmas. Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse.

For me, White Christmas has always prompted comparisons. Many have seen it as a loose remake of an earlier film, Holiday Inn, which also featured Bing Crosby and the first appearance of his most famous song in a movie. His co-star then was Fred Astaire, which is about the only element that White Christmas failed to improve upon. Danny Kaye was an ingenious comic actor and accomplished dancer, but in the latter department, he was no Fred Astaire. Still, the later film, filmed many years later in a lavish Technicolor production, is by far the more developed, polished and appropriately seasonal offering.

Bringing the story to the stage seems an obvious and winning notion, although trying to fill Bing’s shoes is a tall order for any actor; and stepping up to warble the title tune is likely a daunting task, no matter how good his vocal training.

I grew up watching White Christmas as a child, and it was missing for many years from the catalog of holiday television broadcasts. Now that it has taken its rightful place among the multitude of holiday offerings, a stage version is welcome, if for no other reason than to have a reason to perform songs by one of the greatest of the great American songwriters, Irving Berlin. Not all of the original group of songs is retained:  “Mandy” and “Choreography” are missing, perhaps because they were the most lavish and complex dance numbers. But the replacements are still top drawer Berlin standards, like “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”

The revamped story sacrifices many details, which lent the narrative urgency and strengthened the bonds between the characters: Davis no longer saves Wallace during combat in World War II; and the two no longer rescue the Haynes sisters from the sheriff by hopping a late-night train out of town. It leaves us with relationships that seem to exist only because we expect them to. White Christmas may seem like holiday fluff to some, but these changes underscore how well crafted the original screenplay actually was.

Whatever quibbles I have about the script, the performance is up to the usual Derby Dinner standard. As Wallace and Davis, Bob Bowman and Matthew Brennan make for a winning team, even if the latter proves a sharper and more agile presence. Sarah Ann Koster and Julie Evins are also an effective team as the Haynes sisters. All four leads sing beautifully. But Mr. Brennan and Ms. Evins also are strong dancers, leading the company in several well-choreographed production numbers such as the lavish ”Blue Skies” that closes the first act, and the romantic and pas de deux, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” Other notable turns come from David Myers as General Waverly and Carol Williams as his housekeeper Martha Watson, a character enlarged somewhat from the film and given a couple of scene-stealing musical numbers. Carolyn Dodd was an irrepressible presence as the General’s granddaughter, Susan; and Derby Dinner mainstay Cary Wiger provided solid support in several roles.

Even though I miss the story elements removed in this adaptation, this production is a highly entertaining show and features some of the best song-and-dance work I’ve ever seen on the DDP stage. Pulling off such polished and complex choreography is often a challenge for local companies. But choreographer Heather Paige Folsom has outdone herself here, helping to make this a glittering holiday entertainment that works for the whole family.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

November 20 – December 31, 2012

Derby Dinner Playhouse

525 Marriott Drive

Clarksville, IN 47129