By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
Now that Chanukah has ended and Christmas is nearly here, there’s time to reflect on the amazing happenstance that Jewish composers and lyricists have contributed mightily to the Christmas musical landscape in ways that seem somewhat at odds with their religious upbringing.
No American alive or dead can be singled out for his contributions more than Irving Berlin, the Jewish immigrant from Russia born Israel Baline. While Jews may be confronted by their minority status during the Yuletide season, the love of Berlin’s music always rises during this or any other season.
Some of the very best and most popular of American Christmas songs – songs that celebrate the comradery and joy of family – were written in large measure by Berlin, the granddaddy of them all. He is, after all, the holder of the records for a number of selections, not the least of which is his best selling song of the genre, “White Christmas,” still at the top of the Christmas sales figures.
His Jewish connection to Christmas notwithstanding, Berlin’s place is certainly at the apex of the pantheon of American songwriters. A movie of his music originally intended to be the third pairing of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire instead turned out to be a vehicle for Crosby and Jewish funnyman Danny Kaye, “White Christmas.” Astaire turned down the role due to his short-lived “retirement” at the time and and illness forced Donald O’Connor to likewise pass on the part.
Crosby had initially sung the popular song in the 1942 black and white Berlin feature “Holiday Inn,” which was his first film with Astaire. The song received the Academy Award for Best Song and was sung again by Crosby on celluloid in “Blue Shies” four years later.
The new Technicolor film shot in VistaVision and released by Paramount Pictures was the most popular film of 1954 and co-starred the beautiful and talented Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen as sisters Betty and Judy Haynes, the love interests of Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, played by Crosby and Kaye.
Based on the screenplay penned by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, “Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas'” is the latest national tour to make it to the Crescent City as part of the Broadway in New Orleans series.
The book for the musical was written in 2000 by David Ives and Paul Blake and it’s probably the part of this musical that will drive audiences to distraction. It is based, after all, on a very hackneyed and predictable script taken from a movie screenplay written 63 years ago in the waning days of Hollywood glory. Several references in the updated book are historically wrong such as the mention about Topo Gigio on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1954, some four years before the character was even invented, and the day of the week when Christmas Eve fell that year, which is integral to the script.
But, after all, musicals are fantasy and they require us to suspend belief at the drop of a Christmas sack. And so we do.
The leading stars of Sean Montgomery (Bob Wallace) and Phil Davis (Jeremy Benton) along with their female counterparts on sisters Betty Haynes (Kerry Conte) and Judy Haynes (Kelly Sheehan) are quite good in their roles. Whether dancing and singing as a duo or leading the entire cast in songs like “I Love a Piano,” this two hours of entertainment is as sparkling and bright as any holiday ornament or adornment.
The ensemble of synchronized hoofers and tap dancers with backing chorus goes a long way to making this work a piece of holiday joy that would be delightful at any time of the year for any target audience. With the exception of the title song, this musical could have been set at most any other time of year. Even the song “Snow” was a castoff from Berlin that he retitled and brought back for the film.
It’s really a love story or, perhaps, two love stories for two couples. But it’s not just a boys meet girls story. The songs are for the most part love ballads like “Love and the Weather,” “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing: and “How Deep is the Ocean.” Add into the exciting mix several fantasy dance sequences with impressive sets and expressive lighting like in “I Love a Piano” and “Blue Skies” and there is no doubt that the shallowness of the book can easily be overlooked.
Of special interest to local theatergoers are two long-established Broadway and TV stars found in the cast. Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba, who was recently seen in “Prince of Broadway” in five different roles is cast as Martha Watson, the love interest of “The Old Man,” General Waverly.He is played by Conrad John Schuck, who toured as Daddy Warbucks in a national tour of “Annie” and was a replacement in the original Broadway cast, but who has enjoyed a long TV career with supporting roles on “Macmillan and Wife,” “Law and Order” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” as well as special roles in “Star Trek” franchises and movies as well as in “Babylon Five.” Shuck famously starred in Robert Altman’s film “M*A*S*H,” as the dentist, the Painless Pole, who contemplates suicide and famously uttered the first f-bomb on screen.
Directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner, this is a Broadway musical throwback of a type rarely seen on present-day Broadway (last year’s “Holiday Inn” being the exception). But it doesn’t take much to understand why it succeeds with songs that date back to Tin Pan Alley and a movie that is a little more than six decades old.
People want to be entertained and Berlin’s music along with brilliant costumes and perfectly executed orchestrations and choreography make this perfect fare for the holiday along with figgy pudding.
“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas’” has its final performance today at 1:00 p.m. For more information call 504-525-1025 or click here for ticket information.