Theater Review: “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at the Kennedy Center

The musical adaptation of the holiday film classic is nostalgic, visually striking, and unashamedly Christmassy.

By: Missy Frederick

If you’re looking for a show that’s thoroughly, unabashedly Christmassy, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at the Kennedy Center has all the trimmings. Lavish, winter-inspired costumes, classic carols, even realistic snow (the first we’ve seen in these parts this year).

And for spectacle, sentimentality, and nostalgia alone—not to mention complex and graceful choreography— White Christmas is a winner. Though the movie, starring Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby, has been kicking around since the 1950s, the stage production is a creation of the past decade. Fans of the film (and there appeared to be plenty at last evening’s production) will find much of the show familiar—an Irving Berlin song has been added here, a character’s role has been enhanced there—but the end results are what you’d expect.

The thin plot of White Christmas throws together two seasoned performers, Phil (David Elder, the Kaye character) and Bob (James Clow, who fills Crosby’s shoes), both army veterans, with two fresher faces, a sister act made up of a cautious Betty (Stefanie Morse) and the more freewheeling Judy (Mara Davi). The scheming and attraction between Judy and Phil throw all four together in Vermont, suddenly staging a pre-Broadway tryout of a revue at the inn of the men’s former military general (Joseph Costa). Clow is a strong singer but a little light on charm, though his presence does have kind of an unconventional, doofy appeal; as his romantic partner, Morse is a knockout, with torchy vocals to match. Davi has a natural, winning style, and Elder takes on his more manic part with kind of a workhorse enthusiasm and charisma.

Vocal highlights include the charming “Sisters” duet (reprised gamely by the men in the second act) and the complex chorus number, “Snow,” set on the train ride to Vermont. The buttoned-up Betty gets to play the siren during her solo act number, “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”

It can be tough not to view this revival with a touch of cynicism. The characters and contrivances can seem a little dusty to the modern ear, and it’s clear the show is playing on nostalgia for the film. The general’s granddaughter, Susan (Shannon Harrington and Andie Mechanic), is made younger, and her precocious song-and-dance number feels a little manipulative to the audience, while the character of a harried, melodramatic stage manager (Kilty Reidy) is over-the-top and trying.

But the large, able chorus and the numerous, detailed costume changes in White Christmas (bubblegum pink and bright green outfits for the men’s early television appearance are particularly eye-catching) all represent the best in old-fashioned musicals. Not to mention all that dancing. From the intricate tap-dancing of “I Love A Piano” to the graceful fantasy partner sequence between Phil and Judy during their romantic duet, Randy Skinner’s choreography is stunning and well executed. To paraphrase the show itself, the best things happen when there is dancing.

White Christmas runs through January 6 at the Kennedy Center. Running time is about two and a half hours, including one intermission. Tickets ($39 to $150) are available via the Kennedy Center’s website.