According to the lyrics of one of Irving Berlin’s most famous tunes, love and the weather can’t be depended upon – they’re unpredictable, irresponsible, unbelievable, unreliable. The same adjectives can’t be lobbed at “White Christmas,” which is one of those musical chestnuts that’s always going to work no matter how unapologetically cornball and old-fashioned it might be. Featuring more than a dozen of the legendary songwriter’s signature melodies, it’ll likely put you in the yuletide spirit, even if you know where the plot is heading from the first scene.
The Spokane Civic Theatre’s latest production of “White Christmas” – it previously staged the show in 2010 and 2012 – has the worn-in feel of a veteran theatrical company dusting off one of its most treasured shows for the thousandth time. In fact, its stars, Kevin Partridge and Mark Pleasant, have both played their respective roles before in earlier productions, and their obvious ease when handling this material is part of its charm.
Written by David Ives and Paul Blake and directed by Jean Hardie, the show concerns Bob Wallace (Partridge) and Phil Davis (Pleasant), who become a popular song-and-dance team after serving together in World War II. One of their old Army buddies asks them to see his sisters’ musical revue and possibly give them some artistic pointers, and the sheepish Bob is immediately smitten with Betty (Tami Knoell), while the more presumptuous Phil sets his sights on Judy (Kayla Mueller).
Through a series of plot complications, the boys’ train trip to New York is rerouted to Pine Tree, Vermont, where Betty and Judy have been scheduled as in-house entertainers at a ski lodge during the busy Christmas season. Bob and Phil soon discover that their former commanding general, Henry Waverly (Ron Weaks), is operating the lodge, and that the unusually warm weather has put a serious dent in his business. It’s up to the four vaudevillians to call in backup and craft a musical show that will once again fill the general’s coffers.
“White Christmas” is, of course, based on the 1954 Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye film (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen played the sisters), and its “let’s put on a show to save the farm” plot was familiar even then. This stage adaptation is fairly faithful to its cinematic source, though there are a few notable excisions from the film: Danny Kaye’s elaborate “Choreography” number has been cut out, as has (for obvious reasons) the song extolling the virtues of minstrel shows.
The film’s cast of supporting characters has also been fleshed out here, which breathes some fresh life into an otherwise moth-eaten premise. There’s Martha (Kathie Doyle-Lipe), the inn’s irritable housekeeper and front desk clerk, whose old showbiz instincts come roaring back when Bob and Phil show up; the general’s precocious young granddaughter Susan (Noelle Fries), who has also developed a hunger for the spotlight; and the shuffling handyman Ezekiel (Ed Bryan), whose one-word catchphrase gains comedic momentum each time it’s uttered.
As is typical with old-school productions like this, “White Christmas” is stacked with big, flashy musical numbers, and Hardie has staged them well. “I Love a Piano,” an extended tap number that opens the show’s second act, is a particular standout, as is a rendition of “Let Yourself Go” that Bob and Phil perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It’s Doyle-Lipe, though, who gets the biggest showstopper: She’s an expert at waltzing into productions and handily walking away with them, and her breathless rendition of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” is an absolute blast, ending with a triple cartwheel across the stage.
But it’s the music that’s the real star of “White Christmas.” Berlin’s romantic, mooney-eyed songs remain cultural touchstones, appeals for idealism and passion in the face of sneering cynicism. The title tune, still the bestselling single of all time, opens and closes the show, and it has the simple power to warm the heart of just about any Scrooge in the audience. It’ll send you out of the theater with a warm glow, no matter how bitterly cold it may be outside.
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