Light and Frothy Secular Fun: “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas”

IBWC National Tour Company. Jeremy Daniel Photography, 2017. *Includes Makayla Joy Connolly

Presented by Work Light Productions
Based on the 1954 film “White Christmas by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner
Music directed by Michael Horsley

Boch Center Wang Theatre
270 Tremont St
Boston, MA
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Critique by Kitty Drexel

(Boston, MA) Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is the secular, heteronormative Christmas musical I didn’t know I needed to see the season. I was in a grumpy mood when last night. I was feeling so grinchy that I could have abandoned my theatre plans to don a furry, green unitard and guide an empty sleigh drawn by a single, overworked pup into the Boston streets. My mood was foul when the curtain rose. But, by the time the curtain went down, I was chipper with the holiday spirit. The dancing and singing in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is so infectiously charming that I had no choice but be swept into a better mood.

The plot of this musical is nothing new. Bob (David Elder) and Phil (Jeremy Benton) fall in love with the sister duo act they intended to hire for their new New York City musical review. Betty (Kerry Conte) and Judy Haynes (Kelly Sheehan) are two gals singing for their supper in a nightclub when Bob and Phil catch their work. Phil falls for Judy and reroutes their review from Florida to so they can be with the sisters in Pinetree, Vermont. After some miscommunication (that could have been prevented with a simple, face-to-face conversation), the four put on a wholesome show for their WWII buddies and learn a thing or two about forgiveness and love.  

The appeal of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas isn’t in its plot. Its draws are these: Irving Berlin’s songs, Randy Skinner’s grand choreography, or post-WWII nostalgia. This show is about the carefree way things used to be for straight people. It was a simpler time when women legally earned less than men, homosexuals could be tossed into jail for existing, and people of color couldn’t vote in every state. Something like a realistic, complex plot might remind an audience of these unhappy things so the writers kept the musical’s book light and frothy. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas helps most us to forget about life for a while. It’s Christmas! 

Music director Horsley has his cast singing in the style of Hollywood’s golden age musicals. The cast spins Berlin’s lyrics in a Transatlantic accent made famous by actors such as Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Lyrics like, “Blue days/All of them gone/Nothing but blue skies/From now on” from Berlin’s jazzy tune Blue Skies remind us that troubles don’t last forever.

In this number, men in pristine white suits and yellow ties danced alongside ladies in elegant, white circle dresses and heels. Their crinolines twirled around their legs like frilly bits of wrapping paper in the wind. Behind them, a painted backdrop of a perfect blue sky with a few puffy clouds framed them like a window. They looked like they were flying away like birds as the orchestra laid down some smooth beats.  

IBWC National Tour Company. Jeremy Daniel Photography, 2016.

So much of the musical is exactly this exploration of dance and song. The numbers feature men in dapper suits and women in glamorous frocks dancing hand-in-hand. It’s mercilessly romantic. Even tap numbers like “I Love A Piano,” which glimmered with sequins like a Siegfried and Roy Vegas dress rehearsal, burst with old fashioned allure. Benton and Sheehan were dressed up as the white and black keys of a piano as they tapped furiously but with articulation across the Wang stage. The cast behind them in similar costumes beat the boards in perfect time. 

Unfortunately, this musical’s moniker is racially accurate. This musical is white. All of the primary leads are white. Exactly one Black woman, Kristyn Pope as Rita, gets a couple of spoken lines as Phil’s romantic interest. There are a handful of people of color in the ensemble but they are outnumbered 2-to-1 by white performers. Nonwhite people weren’t invented in 1950. It’s time time to diversify casts with more than just a few token ensemble members. 

Gird your loins, bigotry is coming. Sexist microagressions are casually sprinkled throughout Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. They aren’t necessary but they are part of the show. Bob makes a homophobic remark about spending too much time together during the war. Audience members of a certain age will laugh. The singing and dancing are still very good.

The Boch Center Wang Theatre smells like the cheap, stale popcorn sold in the lobby. This is great if you love that smell! This is not if you don’t. People with allergies please take note. 

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