I’M DREAMING OF NO MORE FILM-TO-STAGE ADAPTATIONS
by John Topping
published November 26, 2008
Irving Berlin’s White
now playing on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre
through January 4
It’s almost Thanksgiving, which means that Christmastime is here! No, not “the
holiday season” – well, yes, that, too – but, really, Christmas. And I don’t mean the one tied
to that pesky religion, either. That Christmas can be such a downer. Rather, the good old-fashioned Christmas; the kind you might recall from the 20th century, where presents
were abundant, good cheer – even phony good cheer – was a welcome part of the season, and the Manger Scene was merely symbolic,
demonstrating that Christmas was so inclusive that even churches could join in on the festivities. And with The Grinch missing in action from Broadway this season (spotted him in Baltimore; believed to be
heading toward Boston), leading the charge of (Christmas) seasonal musicals is Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (not to be confused
with my review of Black Christmas; there is little or no carnage in this show).
The Broadway musical Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is based on the movie musical White Christmas (featuring songs
by Irving Berlin), the classic film that, of course, everyone has seen. Except me, that
is. So let’s narrow it down to: it’s been seen by everyone who likes Christmas
movies. Damn it! That excludes me
again. Thus I went in knowing nothing about it – nothing – except that it was a movie starring
Bing Crosby which has capitalized on the now-permanent trend of morphing movies into musicals.
And not seeing the movie first, it’s a bit surprising how intuitively one perceives this as an inferior product.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas the stage musical was born five
years ago in
San Francisco and has played in one city or another every Christmas season since. This is its
Broadway debut, and several cast members hail from the world premiere. And it should be mentioned
right now that it’s not a disaster. Far from it, in
fact. There are plenty of numbers that are, depending on your budget, worth the price of
admission. It’s a fully professional undertaking; the direction (Walter Bobbie) and choreography
(Randy Skinner) are skillful and accomplished. The singing and dancing … c’mon, it’s Broadway; of
course it’s top-notch. The set design by Anna Louizos is particularly excellent, especially with the
occasional use of mini-sets which are walled off and separated from the rest of the stage, giving
the effect of looking into a Christmas window display.
With so much going for it (the songs ain’t chopped liver, either), why does it seem to have trouble coming fully
alive? Partially, the story, although it follows the film fairly closely, takes some puzzling
detours (I’ve watched the film in the interim). When we are introduced to the sister act of
Betty and Judy (Kerry O’Malley and Meredith Patterson), they perform the song “Sisters,” a specifically female number. There was much speculation from those familiar with the movie on whether Bob and Phil (Stephen Bogardus
and Jeffry Denman), would reprise the number, giant feather fans and all. They do, but for
totally different reasons. In the movie, the guys go onstage to stall for time while the gals
are sneaking out of the dressing room window to avoid the police (they’re not criminals; it’s about a predatory landlord). On stage, it happens late in Act II: they’re putting on a show, the women have disappeared from the barn
theater due to plot complications, and the men volunteer to do the number because they only have ten minutes to set the lights for
it. Another number, “We’ll Follow the Old Man,” is, in the film, sung to the retiring General
Henry Waverly during the opening scene, when Bob and Phil are still in the army. This gives it
emotional resonance when they sing it for him again ten years later. Here, it’s sung twice,
dutifully, but it’s not until Act II that we hear it the first time.
Perhaps equally important are the actors playing Bob and Phil. Bogardus and Denman
are perfectly wonderful actors, singers and dancers, but they are playing Wallace and Davis, the biggest song-and-dance stars in the
nation, and the only thing missing is … well, star power. You don’t necessarily have to hire
stars to have star power in a show, but you at least need someone with star power to carry it
off. This is, in fact, often how stars are born.
The closest thing to star power on the stage of the Marquis Theatre is Susan Mansur (who has played the role of Martha Watson in all five
productions) as a former Broadway star who has been in hiding. Her big solo number is “Let Me
Sing And I’m Happy,” wherein she uses the production going up in the barn to stage her comeback. Yet it is actually the delightful “Falling Out Of Love Can Be Fun” (not in the film), sung with Betty and
Judy, where she really stands out.
There was also a woman in the chorus who, from a distance anyway, looked so much like Kristen Schaal (Mel the stalker on the HBO
series Flight of the Conchords) that it was seriously distracting, and I spent a significant amount of time wondering if it was
really her (it wasn’t).
For all of its second class status in comparison to the movie, it should be noted that the proceedings finally lift off at the
beginning of Act II, with the upbeat, snappy and tappy “I Love a Piano,” and mostly maintains a steady flight to the end. The finale is spectacular and dazzling enough to make you forget all of the shortcomings that preceded
it. The tourists in the audience, in particular, were thrilled beyond belief … and really,
this show is for them, so it accomplishes what it set out to do. Let it also stand on record
that my young but sophisticated companion, a huge fan of the movie and of the original 2004 production, was not disappointed
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com