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Your biggest fan: (l-r) Amy Bodnar and Shannon M. O’Bryan in White Christmas.

Photo: Tanner Photography

Shiny Brights

By Shawn Stone

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by David Ives and Paul Blake, directed by Norb Joerder

Proctors, Through Nov. 28

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, now settled in for a pre- and post-Thanksgiving stay on the mainstage at Proctors, is as colorful and dazzling as the best Christmas toy you ever saw in a department store as a child. By which I mean an old-timey, made-in-America toy, not a computer-chip controlled electronic device made by an evil multinational corporation. Set in the 20th-century show business world composer Irving Berlin played such a large role in creating, White Christmas is a classic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl story, with wall to wall singing and plenty of room for dancing.

While everyone in the show, including the chorus, dance and sing, John Scherer (as Bing Crosby . . . I mean Bob Wallace) and Amy Bodnar (as Rosemary Clooney . . . I mean Betty Haynes) do more singing, and Denis Lambert (as Danny Kaye . . . I mean Phil Davis) and Shannon M. O’Bryan (as Vera Ellen . . . I mean Judy Haynes) do more dancing. All four are very good, but it’s O’Bryan who is the real scene-stealer with her vivacious dancing.

The show is wonderfully slick, as opposed to just slick. The big dance numbers, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” and “I Love a Piano,” are inspired, with crafty scenery-shifts and fog effects juicing up the former, and some terrific ensemble tap work spicing up the latter. The memorable songs, including “White Christmas” and “Count Your Blessings,” are performed with heart but not schmaltz.

The show is based on the 1954 film musical, which was itself a comfy, audience-friendly exercise in nostalgia (and, as such, the highest-grossing film of that year). The film’s nostalgia was specific to the decade following World War II. It was inextricably tied-in with contemporary memories of the war and star Bing Crosby’s status as a kind of national institution; the show doesn’t have that baggage, and the few added-on “greatest generation”-style references don’t bring anything heavier than a warm, vaguely patriotic glow to the proceedings.

The movie was also given edge by Berlin’s anxieties about the sea-change in what constituted post-war entertainment. His discomfort came through strongly in “Mandy,” a cranky minstrel-show number sans blackface, and “Choreography,” which sourly lampooned modern dance; both of those songs have been jettisoned, replaced by more famous—and much better—tunes from Berlin’s vast songbook.

This is the where the show outpaces the film: the battle Berlin feared with newfangled kinds of show biz is long over, and audiences can be nostalgic for—and happily venerate—the craft and inspiration Berlin brought to even seemingly throw-away tunes like “Snow.” (There is no throwaway tune in the show, except for the plot-advancing “What Can You Do With a General?”) The added-on songs include the haunting “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” The former deepens the romance in the last act; the latter is a showstopper for Ruth Williamson as the brassy Broadway gal-turned-switchboard operator,

The show improves on the film in one more aspect: the book. The film’s plot contrivances are replaced with other, less gimmicky plot contrivances. Believe me, that’s not feigned praise.

 


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