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December 21, 2012

'Irving Berlin's White Christmas' hits holiday spot at Kennedy Center

Anyone interested in time travel need not settle for an episode of “Dr. Who.” You can be whisked back to the 1950s in a flash just by catching the production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at the Kennedy Center.

You have to check a lot of baggage first, though.

For a start, you can’t take aboard any prejudices against mid-century musicals with snowflake-thin, surprise-free story lines and songs that do nothing to advance the plot or provide character insights. You also can’t carry on your usual cynical antipathy to cornball humor, tap-dancing routines or precocious kids onstage.

Follow those simple instructions, and you should have a pleasant trip.

It’s reassuring to know that ...

there’s still an audience left for such old-fashioned stuff (there was hearty cheering from the crowd the night I attended), and to know that there still are performers who can deliver it with panache.

“White Christmas” is based on the 1954 film of the same name, starring Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye. (The movie title did not include the words “Irving Berlin’s,” of course — this business of attaching the composers to their show titles is a more recent, and annoying, trend in theater.)

In a nutshell, the action involves some World War II buddies who also happen to be song-and-dance men. Back in the States, they successfully get into show biz and, along the way, team up with a sister act.

As various romantic possibilities are pursued and various lines of communication crossed, the four entertainers end up at a Vermont inn run by the guys’ old general, who is having a tough time keeping the place going — not enough snow. The only course of action is to put on a show and, as you might have guessed, hope for a white Christmas.

With a book by David Ives and Paul Blake, the stage version of the movie originated at the Muny in St. Louis 12 years ago. It toured around the country for while, landed on Broadway in 2008 for a brief visit and returned the next year.

The production has been touring since and seems to have legs. Lots of cities hankering for fresh holiday fare are likely to welcome it. And there really is something fresh about it, even if the actual material may have passed its sell-by date.

What makes it all work is the presentation. Attentively directed by Norb Joerder and vibrantly choreographed by Randy Skinner, the show conjures up another era in deft strokes, as much through the costumes (Carrie Robbins) as through sets (Kenneth Foy) that might wobble if bumped into, just as you would have expected them to do in the ’50s.

Although I understand how easy it would be for some folks to dismiss “White Christmas” out of hand, it is so darn cute and so darn eager to please that it is even easier to surrender, to squelch your inner Scrooge for a couple of hours and go with the tuneful flow.

Not that this is an entirely top-drawer Berlin score. The title song, sure, but such numbers as “Snow” and, especially, “What Can You Do With a General?” must have been written in the songwriter’s sleep. A deep sleep. (Perhaps to compensate, the creators tucked a few Berlin classics into the mix.)

The finishing touch on this nostalgic venture is applied by an effervescent cast that jumps into the musical as if it were newly minted, as if every note, every line of dialogue, were golden.

The engaging James Clow brings a firm voice and smooth phrasing to the role of Bob, the ex-soldier with a cool head for show biz and, it seems, a cold heart for romance. As Bob’s roaming-eyed pal Phil, David Elder demonstrates comic and terpsichorean snap.

Stefanie Morse (Betty) and Mara Davi (Judy) offer personality and finesse as the Haynes Sisters. Ruth Williamson tackles the obligatory, Mary Wickes-type role of Martha, the inn’s manager, and runs through the sassy-to-sentimental gamut with great flair.

Joseph Costa is the blustery General Waverly. Andie Mechanic (alternating with Shannon Harrington) reveals promise and manages to keep the role of the general’s granddaughter from turning terminally cute. The remaining supporting players get the job done nicely. In the production numbers, notably “I Love a Piano,” the ensemble moves through its paces with elan.

The ever-reliable Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, led by Michael Horsley, sounds terrific, putting sparkle into even the weakest spots of the score.

With its vintage look and dollops of unapologetic schmaltz, “White Christmas” is holiday comfort food for the eyes and ears.

Performances continue through Jan. 6 at the Kennedy Center.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:14 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens


Just a point of information: the 1954 movie was indeed titled "Irving Berlin's WHITE CHRISTMAS." In fact, most all movies with scores by Berlin used the possessive starting with 1941's HOLIDAY INN. (It's OK to refer to the movie without the possessive, of course.) TOP HAT is currently playing in a stage version in London; since that film was from 1935, you will note no possessive "Irving Berlin's" in the title!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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