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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.

The cast of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at the Kennedy Center. Photograph © Sharon Sipple.

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