The Shaw Festival has wisely chosen Irving Berlin’s White Christmas for its holiday season together with A Christmas Carol. It is based on the classic 1954 movie with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and I have no intention of comparing the stage version with the film. Suffice it to say that it took 56 years before the movie was adapted for the stage with book by David Ives and Paul Blake, not the same as the screenwriters.
The script is pure, imaginary Eisenhower era Americana. It is sentimental, feel-good and perfect for the season when reality may be pushed back. A song-and dance duo made up of a private and a captain in the American army in Europe in 1944 sing of their love for their general and of the longing for home. It is Christmas Eve and they are dreaming of a white Christmas just like the one they used to know. Their dream becomes our dream no matter how far-fetched it may seem.
Ten years later Bob Wallace (Jeff Irving), the former captain and Phil Davis (Kevin McLachlan) are successful entertainers and they meet the “sisters” of a former army buddy. They are the singing Haynes Sisters, Judy (Mary Antonini) and Betty (Alexis Gordon). The puritanical Bob is not interested in women but the romantic Phil falls for Betty. Now get ready for boy meets girl and with more than two hours to go the boys lose the girls and, you guessed it, there is a happy ending.
The other plot strand is Bob and Phil’s attempt to help the former general out of his financial depression by organizing a show in the barn of his bankrupt inn in Vermont. Yes, it sounds hokey but Irving Berlin’s songs, a good dose of humour, some marvelous tap dances and love keep the show moving and draw our attention away from the not-that-great plot.
The musical comes from the era when songs had melodies and were a delight to the ear. Betty and Judy sing “Sisters”, Bob and Betty sing “Count Your Blessings” and all of them sing “Blue Skies.” We all join in singing “White Christmas.” The singing ranges from creditable to very good and the dancing choreographed by Allison Plamondon is superb.
Some of the humour may appear dated, some of it is very funny and the enthusiastic opening night audience lapped it all up.
The American army and officer corps was all-white in 1944 (yes, there may have been exceptions) and the current production draws us away from that by using colour-blind casting. It’s nice to see a black General Waverly (a very good David Alan Anderson) and others on the stage and ignore what was happening in 1944 and 1954.
The costumes by Judith Bowden were beautiful 50’s styles and the set by her showed some cost-cutting necessities and were adequate at best. In the final scene the entire regiment is supposed to have shown up at the General’s Vermont Inn for the show. And they were supposed to be in uniform. Only three soldiers showed up in uniform and we can ascribe that not to unpatriotic conduct by the soldiers who love their general but by the Shaw Festival’s accountant who, I guess on no evidence at all, figured out the cost of making many uniforms and limited the expenditure to only three.
Paul Sportelli conducted the orchestra and Kate Hennig directed the production. Applaud everyone and remember that it snowed in Vermont at the right time, the general’s failing inn was saved, Bob and Phil and Betty and Judy found happiness and you got to sing “White Christmas” lustily and no doubt off key.