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Theater Review: Irving Berlin's White Christmas, Northern Stage 

click to enlarge Kate Melodia, Brad Bradley, Beth Ann Baker, Chole Tiso, Katerina Papacostas and Rachel Brawley
  • Kate Melodia, Brad Bradley, Beth Ann Baker, Chole Tiso, Katerina Papacostas and Rachel Brawley

For most celebrants, the Christmas holiday revolves around family traditions such as stuffed stockings, or singing carols learned as children. For others, it’s about listening to the First Night story or A Christmas Carol, or watching for the umpteenth time the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.

The holiday musical Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, currently running at Northern Stage in White River Junction, brings all these good feelings together. After absorbing two hours of happy song and dance and storytelling, it’s hard not to feel all warm and fuzzy.

The show begins with the song “White Christmas” as it brings comfort to a ragged group of World War II soldiers trying to celebrate the holiday somewhere near a dark battlefield. Berlin wrote it for his 1942 movie musical Holiday Inn. The movie was a minor hit, but the song was a major one, topping the Billboard charts and winning an Academy Award that year.

Within a decade of its instant success, “White Christmas” became the centerpiece of a new Irving Berlin movie musical of the same name. White Christmas starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as the popular song-and-dance team of Bob Wallace and Phil Davis. This time the film itself was a hit, and it soon became a holiday classic.

The basic plot of the movie, as well as of the 2004 Broadway musical version, follows Wallace and Davis as they meet and fall in love with the singing, dancing Haynes sisters, Betty and Judy. The girls are heading to the Pine Tree Inn in Vermont to perform for the holidays. The boys follow and discover that their old Army commander, Gen. Waverly (played by veteran TV actor Kenneth Kimmins), is the owner of the financially failing inn. In a plot device as old as the Vermont hills, they decide to put on a show to help “the old man.”

The rest is predictable: Boys get girls, boys lose girls, boys get girls back — singing and dancing along the way. But the clichés are delivered in such an entertaining way that both the movie and theatrical versions have become seasonal staples. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is thus a perfect candidate for Northern Stage’s longstanding tradition of producing a big, happy, family-friendly musical every December.

The film and Broadway versions differ; the latter changes the plot twists a bit, yet nothing is lost in translation. Only one song is missing, along with Danny Kaye’s rubber-legged gyrations while faking that his foot is asleep.

Conversely, the additions to the stage play are more characters and more Berlin songs, including a great nightclub rendition of “Blue Skies.” In the Northern Stage production, Alex Syiek as Wallace delivers the song Sinatra style, and the backing dancers are electric and athletic.

Two lesser-known Berlin songs, “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” and “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun,” both feature the expanded character of Martha Watson, here played energetically by Susann Fletcher. Martha, the general’s practical assistant and switchboard operator who quietly carries a torch for him, is an ex-Broadway performer with a big, brassy voice (think Martha Raye). Fletcher and her character are welcome additions to this show.

It’s hard to put aside comparisons to Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen from the film. But fortunately, Syiek and Brad Bradley look nothing like Crosby and Kaye, and they’ve created their own personae for the characters. Syiek is darkly handsome and brings a smoldering, moody quality to Wallace that suits both the world-weariness and tenderness that he must convey. Bradley plays the dancer-playboy who seems to have all the moves, both on the dance floor and in his casual affairs with the chorus girls.

Paired with Katerina Papacostas as Judy Haynes, Bradley shows his character’s humanity as he struggles to give up his womanizing ways. His scenes with a couple of ditzy dancers are a treat: as the women ooze sexiness, Bradley first encourages it, then controls himself for Judy. Papacostas is a lithe, expressive dancer who really brings her character into her dances. Her first dance with Bradley, to the tune of “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” is a highlight of the first act; the partners beautifully work their way through movement styles as well as emotions. Their eye contact and expressions while doing so convey their growing attraction to each other. Judy pushes and pulls herself toward or away from Phil, often pausing mid-move as if to reconsider her choice.

Syiek and Stacie Bono (Betty Haynes) are also well cast and have excellent chemistry. Bono’s voice is the equal of Syiek’s, and they harmonize nicely, building emotion both in and outside their songs. Only once does Bono let the strength of her voice and her use of the currently popular powerhouse singing style — à la “American Idol” — get in the way of an otherwise flawless performance. In the classic torch song “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” Bono relies too much on belting and not enough on emotional modulations.

A musical is nothing without dancing, and choreographer Keith Coughlin brings out the best in his capable dancers during featured moments as well as in difficult synchronized numbers, such as the Act II opener, “I Love a Piano.” The whole eight-member chorus, along with Judy and Phil, put on their tap shoes and do outstanding ensemble work with speed and finesse.

It is easy to go on praising this delightful, well-crafted production of White Christmas. Director Carol Dunne has made excellent use of the stage and limited cast. For example, before Bob and Betty meet, they share a sweet duet on “Love and the Weather.” They foreshadow their meeting and reveal their similar attitudes as they sing about their reluctance in romance from opposite sides of a dressing-room mirror.

The one exception to Dunne’s judicious management comes near the end of the show, when Gen. Waverly is presented to all his past soldiers, who have come to Vermont to surprise him. It’s a moving moment, but, while the film had many extras in uniform, here the general is alone on a bare stage. Kimmins’ presence is strong, but there are no props, lighting effects, recorded voices or any other theater “magic” to give a sense of the crowd ostensibly surrounding him.

Saving the best for last is tricky when reviewing a quality production such as this one, but the Broadway musical version adds two more characters that are a definite bonus. In the hands of a gifted comic actor like Scot Cote, both are downright joyful. Cote reveals his full range in delivering the effervescent TV producer Sheldrake and the taciturn, monosyllabic old Vermonter Ezekiel. Both are memorable performances, only sharpened by the contrast between them. Cote’s sense of timing is impeccable, and he wrings maximum humor from the pause and drawl of a Vermont-y “a-yah.” It may be particularly funny to a New England audience, but Cote’s performance alone is nearly worth the price of admission.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is worth adding to your holiday traditions — if this run at Northern Stage is not already sold out.

"Irving Berlin’s White Christmas" , directed by Carol Dunne, choreographed by Keith Coughlin, produced by Northern Stage. Wednesday through Sunday, December 11 to 15, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, December 14 and 15, 2 p.m. See website for other days and times through December 31. Briggs Opera House, White River Junction. $10-60. Info and tickets, 296-7000.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Christmas Spirit"

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