Traditionally, after a musical opens, as long as it’s well received, the film will follow. With White Christmas it was the other way around.
The film was released in 1954 but it took almost fifty years until the stage version was produced. It then took another four years until it finally made its way to Broadway, and, yes it’s true, the show was greeted with something less than seasonal good cheer. Reviews were negative and audiences quickly dwindled.
Fortunately, for the rest of the country, it didn’t end there. Bad notices can all but kill a show, but in the case of White Christmas with the name Irving Berling added officially to the title, its audience was soon to be found not on the Great White Way but just about everywhere else, and not just all over the country but overseas as well, spreading an American version of the Christmas holiday to European cultures where most of the traditions began in the first place. And it scored.
After a successful run with the national tour that played to packed audiences in the valley a couple of years ago, it’s now the turn of the Phoenix, and what a handsome looking production it turned out to be. Director Michael Barnard has played Santa and delivered one enormous Christmas present to the valley, a theatrical yuletide musical package bursting with more than just good cheer, it’s a fully fledged holiday gift wrapped in the best quality paper that is going to be unwrapped nightly right up until Christmas Eve. If this doesn’t make someone’s season bright, then believe me, nothing will.
Everyone must know the film – it’s a perennial favorite - so what surprises the most about the stage version is how surprisingly fresh it all seems, despite its familiarity. Part of that freshness comes from the fact that the show doesn’t adhere completely to it big screen counterpart. The overall arc of the plot is the same, but the show enlarges on the song and dance and some of the characterizations and gives an added depth that the film could never reach.
One of the benefits of creating a musical where the central theme is show business is you can add songs in order to pad the production that have nothing to do with the plot but they’ll always work simply because the characters are in rehearsal for a show. It’s the perfect excuse. Anything they do can be explained as being part of the show within the show, thus we have some great Irving Berlin songs added to White Christmas that were never in the film, including Blue Skies, Let Me Sing and I’m Happy, and I Love A Piano.
Despite great energy from its two male leads, Peter Marinaro in the Danny Kaye role of Phil and Joseph Cannon in the Bing Crosby role of Bob, this production belongs to the ladies. Even though they seem slightly older than the characters are traditionally played, both Debby Rosenthal and Molly Lajoie shine in the roles of the sisters, Betty and Judy – Molly’s I Love a Piano that opens the second half is a tap-dancing delight, a musical highlight with wonderful choreography from Kathy Calahan – but there’s also great support from Johanna Carlisle with the scene stealing Let Me Sing and I’m Happy, and from VYT alumni young Kate Shein who reprises I’m Happy and steals the moment almost as much as Johanna with the same song.
But the real star of the show is the scenic design of Robert Kovach backed by Mike Eddy’s lighting. The colors of Christmas are always eye-catching – it’s the look of the season that creates the magic – and here Robert and Mike have really pulled out all the stops. It’s as though they’ve taken their favorite greetings card and made it come alive with an extra touch of velvety red; lights twinkle and shine, ribbons and bows adorn the props, white snow gently falls in the background, and at the center, a sparkling Christmas tree that draws your focus to the point where you wished they had a raffle after the show and you could take it home.
When the film was first released, it came in a new system called Vista Vision, a Hollywood process that created a clarity of picture never before seen on the big screen and where people talked of the color as being in Technicolor. The way the colors of Christmas virtually leap off the Phoenix Theatre stage, you could say that Michael Barnard has recreated a live version of the Vista Version process. With its inbuilt, sentimental and nostalgic vision of an American Christmas of the past done so well as it is here, the Phoenix Theatre version of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is simply old fashioned, irresistible, live entertainment. The season has officially arrived and this year it’s a Technicolor wonder.
For more information regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website.
For more film and local theatre, CLICK HERE for the David Appleford Film & Theatre Review website.
David Appleford is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society and the American Theatre Critics Association
To read more film and theatre reviews, plus navigate through archival material CLICK HERE to go to the David Appleford Film & Theatre Review website.