Okay, so the plot is formulaic—let's put on a show to save...whatever; boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl—you know the drill. But with glorious music by Irving Berlin, infectious ensemble tap dancing numbers and first-rate performances by the six leads (and one adorable moppet), The Paper Mill Playhouse's production of White Christmas is a scrumptious holiday confection perfect for the entire family.
Based on a 1954 film starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, White Christmas was resurrected on Broadway in 2008 and again in 2009, receiving Tony and Drama Desk award nominations for best choreography and orchestration. Its current incarnation in Millburn stars several members of the revival cast—notably James Clow and Tony Yazbek in the Crosby and Kaye roles, respectively; their comfort and familiarity with the material is evident in the polish and energy of their performances.
The plot involves army buddies Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, who've made it big as entertainers 10 years after World War II has ended. Entreated by "Freckle-faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy" to audition his sisters for their act, the two travel to the club where the Haynes Sisters are appearing. When Phil becomes enamored of Judy, he switches the men's train tickets from Florida to Vermont, where the girls are set to appear at a country inn. When they arrive, they're surprised to find the inn owned by their former commanding officer, who is beset with bills, a heat wave (thus, no snow) and looming foreclosure. To save the inn (and the general's face), Wallace and Davis and the Haynes Sisters contact their fellow entertainers with a plan to put on a show; Wallace and Davis send out letters to the members of the 151st Army Division asking them to come to Vermont to support The Old Man. Misunderstandings ensue, romance goes off the rails, but in true Broadway musical form, all turns out well in the end.
The usual stellar Paper Mill Playhouse production values are in full effect in White Christmas, from Anna Louizos' beautiful set, Carrie Robbins' lush (and of the period) costumes and Ken Billington's atmospheric lighting. Marc Bruni's steady direction keeps things humming as scenes change smoothly, and the ensemble nimbly performs Randy Skinner's toe-tapping terrific choreography.
Bruni certainly has put together a talented cast for this winter extravaganza! James Clow (left) may not be as suave as Bing Crosby, but his fine voice puts across a song, most notably "Count Your Blessings" and "How Deep Is the Ocean." In the role originated by Danny Kaye, Tony Yazbeck (right) displays a nice voice and great agility reminiscent of the hoofer Donald O'Connor, who was originally slated to perform in the film. He's especially smooth in "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" and "I Love a Piano." As Judy Haynes, Meredith Paterson (below right) gets to dance more than sing, but she looks to be having a fine time of it; Jill Palce's Betty Haynes (left) is more reserved, but she is in fine voice warbling the torch song, "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me." The two have great fun with the quintessential ode to sibling rivalry, “Sisters.” Edward James Hyland is all spit and polish as General Waverly, innkeeper and former Army commander, and young Andie Mechanic as his granddaughter Susan steals the show whenever she is onstage.
Completing the list of main characters is Lorna Luft (left) as the brassy former entertainer Martha Watson, now manning the desk at the Columbia Inn. Her youthful looks hidden under a curly, red wig, Luft demonstrates her genetic pipes (she's the daughter of the great Judy Garland) belting out "Let Me Sing and I'll Be Happy." Her comedic timing is spot-on, too, and she sure can dance.
So the plot of White Christmas is predictable and the characters more two-dimensional than realistic, but the Paper Mill Playhouse's version is first-rate. For those who remember the music of Irving Berlin and who, like me, adore tap dancing, this show is right up your alley. The kids may find it a bit tame, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to introduce them to real musical class. White Christmas is the perfect gift for theatergoers of all ages.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson.