Wonderful 'White Christmas' goes from film to stage

Playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn NJ, White Christmas not only reprises the iconic 1954 film, but improves upon it.

The 1954 film White Christmas, starring Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby, has been a staple of the holiday season on television for years.  In the film, Bing sings the title song on a 1944 European battlefield.  Ten years go by for him and his buddy, Danny Kaye, and then true love finds them both as they stage a Christmas show to save their beloved wartime general’s New England hotel from bankruptcy.  All’s well that ends well on Christmas Eve.  There are trips to Florida, train rides, television appearances, hotel scenes, offices scenes and, of course, a lot of scenes set in Vermont.

How do you turn such a complicated 57-year-old movie into a stage play?  How does anybody replace Bing Crosby?

So it was with a substantial amount of holiday trepidation that I went to see the new musical, White Christmas, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, a restored theater that sits alongside a lovely babbling brook in New Jersey.  Their version of White Christmas featured a ridiculous plot, did not have Bing and was loaded with sleighs full of schmaltz.

In other words, it was just wonderful.

The holiday season did not get off on the right foot with White Christmas.  It leapt off on the right foot. White Christmas is not only a sturdy, if not better, version of Irving Berlin’s emotional story than the film, but it embraces the season with a plot full of syrupy love affairs, deep friendships, heartwarming music and even a wintry snowstorm that falls upon the audience to the surprise and delight of all.

This is one of a half dozen versions of the musical playing around the country.  The play(s) debuted two years ago on Broadway.

The plot is simple. Two GIs, Bob and Phil, who loved their World War II general, Henry Waverly, return home and become big show biz stars.  They fall in love with two sisters who have joined their show, Judy and Betty Haynes, and take the whole show to Vermont to stage it at their old general’s inn in order to save it.  Somebody misunderstands a message and everything is tossed into chaos.

Bob goes on the Ed Sullivan Show on television to plead with members of his old army division, the fictional 151st, to vacation at the general’s inn to save it and see the show.  Then he runs to a New York night club to try to salvage his suddenly broken romance with Betty Haynes, but she refuses to go back to Vermont with him.  Then Bob runs to catch a late night train.

In the end, will Betty go back with Bob?  Will the soldiers who see Bob’s television plea take their families to Vermont to save the general?  Will Bob get back to the general’s Vermont inn in time to be in the show, and in time for Christmas?

What makes this such a delightful and satisfying musical, and holiday treat for all, is the splendid ensemble acting.  James Clow as Bob and Tony Yazbeck as Phil, much like Crosby and Kaye in the film, come off as very ordinary guys who just happen to be able to sing and dance.  They have trouble solving their problems, rely on each other and, when in trouble, act like honorable men.  There is a solid chemistry between them.  The general, played well by Anthony Reimer, who seems as old as the trees around his Vermont inn, is a crusty old soldier who might have led 17,000 men to glory in World War II but has a hard time paying his bills in New England.  The Haynes sisters, played by Meredith Patterson and Jill Paice, love and trust each other and have weathered, it seems, a thousand boyfriends before they finally hook up with the right ones in Bob and Phil.

 The show is stolen, just outright stolen, by veteran actress Lorna Luft, who plays Martha Watson, the manager of the inn and an old show biz hoofer herself.  The loud, brassy and thoroughly adorable Martha holds the general, the inn, the young lovers, and everything else together.  There is a cute kid, played by Andie Mechanic, who is a pint-sized wonder of singing and dancing.

People who saw the movie usually only remember Irving Berlin’s mega hit, White Christmas, but there are several marvelous and memorable tunes in the show, including Snow, Sisters, I Love a Piano and How Deep is the Ocean.  Berlin’s holiday music is a Christmas in November gift to anyone who listens to it.

The director wisely decided to keep the show set in 1954 and not modernize it.  By doing that, he makes the story an historic one, a fond remembrance of what Christmas was like in more innocent times.  The musical still reminds us, though, that at any time, Christmas is good.

Historically, the White Christmas tune was first sung in the film Holiday Inn, a three-hanky 1942 valentine to love and the holidays that also starred Crosby.  Moviegoers loved it, so Bing recorded it as a single and it sold more than 50 million copies, making it, with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time.

The director also kept pretty close to the script of the movie.  Some scenes have been dropped and some shortened, but, one following the other, they stay pretty true to the film.  There are small, postcard sets and small dance numbers and also large sets and sprawling dance numbers, such as that for I Love a Piano, that are rousing.

There are scenes from the film that a theater cannot duplicate.  A film can show hundreds of GIs on a battlefield; a play cannot.  A film can show cars and trains moving and a play cannot.  Even so, director Marc Bruni does a fine job of keeping the play moving along at a smooth pace while slowly building the characters of the two stars of the show and the others.

I don’t want to spoil the play for anyone who sees it, but at one point in the show snow falls on stage and throughout the theater.  At another point, the entire audience sings White Christmas along with the cast.  It is a wonderful holiday touch.  Santa Claus could not have staged it any better.

White Christmas: Producers: Paper Mill Playhouse (the play is based upon the Paramount Pictures 1954 film), Milburn N.J. Sets: Anna Louizos, Costumes: Carrie Robbins, Lighting Design: Ken Billington, Sound: Randy Hansen. Choreography; Randy Skinner. Directed by Marc Bruni.

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. He writes for History News Network, from where this article is adapted.

 

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