Theater review: Actors and Songs Make ‘White Christmas’ Pleasant

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas has plenty of the master songwriter’s tunes and a fine cast. If that’s what you need to kick off your holiday season, then you’ll enjoy this show.

The musical homage to the 1954 film of the same name has a book by David Ives and Paul Blake that presumably isn’t concerned with breaking any new ground. The let’s-fix-a-problem-with-a-show plot was old even then – after all, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had already had their turn with such stories a decade earlier and others had used the idea as well – but it does serve as an excuse to get some good performers singing and dancing in some enjoyable numbers.

Those numbers include ones that Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen did in the movie along with other Berlin songbook selections. Among the tunes are “Happy Holiday,” “Love and the Weather,” “Sisters,” “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun,” “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” “Snow” and of course the well-loved title song.

Bob Wallace (James Clow) and Phil Davis (David Elder) are war buddies turned entertainers who end up spending their holidays at a Vermont inn instead of Miami when Davis tries to fix his pal up with singer Betty Haynes (Stefanie Morse) while making time with her sister Judy (Mara Davi).

The inn is run by their former commander Gen. Henry Waverly (Joseph Costa). It’s deep in debt, though Waverly doesn’t know that since his tough-but-with-a-heart-of-gold housekeeper/receptionist Martha Watson (Ruth Williamson) is hiding the bills from him. Keeping them both company is the general’s adorable granddaughter Susan Waverly (Shannon Harrington on opening night; the role is also played by Andie Mechanic). No prize for guessing what happens when the former GIs find out about the inn’s economic predicament.

While the stale storyline – admittedly endearing but nevertheless well past its sale-by date – isn’t a strong reason for seeing this show, the nice work done by the experienced cast is. All can dance and sing well, and there’s some good acting moments too, particularly from such supporting players as Cliff Bemis as Vermont local Ezekiel Foster and Tony Lawson as Ralph Sheldrake, who served with Wallace, Davis and Waverly in World War II and is now with the “Ed Sullivan Show.”

The leads and the chorus all handle Randy Skinner’s happy-go-lucky choreography well, with Act I’s “Blue Skies” finale and the Act II opener “I Love a Piano” among the highlights. One of the best vocal moments comes when Morse puts the right torch song touches into “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”

Kenneth Foy’s scenic design and adaptation (Anna Louizos designed the show’s set for Broadway) is colorful and detailed without overwhelming the action; Ken Billington’s lights and Peter Fitzgerald’s sound are top-notch. And costumer Carrie Robbins has the kind of fun you should have with 1950s holiday-period clothing and show-within-a-show outfits.

So, if I sound like a Grinch because the plot doesn’t thrill me, please forgive me; after all, that’s not really what the show is about. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is ultimately a pleasant affair because of talented professionals that present some wonderful musical moments.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, an HCA/TriStar Health Broadway at TPAC series selection, continues through Sunday (Nov. 18) in Andrew Jackson Hall at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (505 Deaderick St.). Performances are 7:30 p.m. Today-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 18. Tickets ($15-$70) are available at (615) 782-4040, the TPAC box office or www.tpac.org. For more show info visit www.whitechristmasthemusical.com.

*Photos by Carder Photography courtesy TPAC.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).