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REVIEW: A sparkling ‘White Christmas’ at Drury Lane showcases Irving Berlin’s genius

November 06, 2015 at 5:57 PM

Original Article:

By Hedy Weiss

Highly Recommended

No doubt about it: Drury Lane Theatre's lavish production of "White Christmas," the classic Irving Berlin musical that is equal parts comedy, pathos, show business homage, patriotic hymn, tap dance showcase and American songbook par excellence, is sensational. It is guaranteed to turn every garden variety Scrooge into a joyful celebrant.

And if, like me, you are lucky enough to see this musical immediately after catching "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" – the one man show now at the Royal George Theatre that not only gets to the root of the musical's title song, but captures the fire inside the man who wrote it – you will unquestionably appreciate "White Christmas" even more. Understanding what inspired Berlin infuses every aspect of this hugely entertaining musical with a whole new layer of meaning.

Matt Raftery (left) and Sean Krill star in the Drury Lane Theatre production of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." (Photo: Brett Beiner)
Based on the popular 1954 movie, the musical – adapted for the stage in 2004, and given a fresh, playfully edgy book by David Ives and Paul Blake – is vintage Broadway and is packed with one evergreen song after another. Seamlessly directed by William Osetek, with grand, giddy-making tap numbers by Matt Crowle, flawless music direction by Roberta Duchak, a spirited orchestra under the direction of Valerie Maze, a wonderfully fluid set by Kevin Depinet, and period-perfect costumes by Robert Kuhn, the show features a cast that is particularly remarkable for the way it spotlights three generations of stellar Chicago talent.

The story begins in 1944, as the song-and-dance team of Bob Wallace (Sean Krill, a leading man with an aura of pure mid-20th century charm), and Phil Davis (the ever boyish and engaging Matt Raftery), are spending Christmas eve as soldiers on the European front – entertaining their fellow troops and dealing with their no-nonsense superior, General Henry Waverly (a spot-on gruff and sentimental Don Forston). Listen closely and you will hear shelling in the distance as they sing "White Christmas," a song Berlin wrote to capture the yearning of men far from home and in harm's way.

Flash forward to a decade later, and the two men are booked on The Ed Sullivan Show. Phil, the ladies' man, is still not "taken," but he's ever on the prowl; his show biz partner, Bob, is a cynic, terrified of romance. The trouble really begins when they decide to hire the beautiful, talented Haynes sisters – Betty (Gina Milo, a lush singer) and Judy (Erica Stephan, a superb dancer). Phil is instantly hooked on Judy, the vivacious blonde, while Phil is powerfully attracted to Betty, the redhead who is as skeptical of romance as he is. Their first encounters are awkward and chilly, but bear every sign they are meant for each other, although much will have to happen before they seal the deal.

Most of the story takes place at a rustic inn in Vermont, which, as it turns out, is owned by the guys' now retired former general. It is just a few days before Christmas, a rare heat wave has hit New England, and business at the inn – already in dire financial shape – is bad. So Bob and Phil hatch a plan that will draw on the generosity of the theater world and serve as a belated tribute to the heroic Waverly. Of course aside from the General, all the residents at the inn have show biz fever: From Martha Watson (the show-stopping comedian and belter Alene Robertson), a former Ethel Merman-style Broadway star who manages the inn and is "lady friend" to the General, to Waverly's precocious granddaughter, Susan (enchanting, funny Maya Lou Hlava, who can belt out a song with the best of them). And then there is Ezekial Foster, the old man "who came with the barn," played by the incomparable Dale Benson, who can give Buster Keaton a run for his money.

Amid all the sharply played scenes and sparkling ballroom and tap numbers it is easy to forget the sheer genius of Irving Berlin whose many splendid songs in this show flow as if an extension of conversation: "Love and the Weather," "Sister," "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," "Blue Skies," "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," "I Love a Piano," "How Deep is the Ocean"; "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." It doesn't get much better than that.