When the much-anticipated Irving Berlin musical White Christmas debuted at Radio City Music Hall in October 1954, the New York Times movie critic was decidedly disappointed. "Everyone works hard," he wrote, "but the stuff they work with is minor." But no one cares what critics think, and the film has become a holiday standard.
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In recent years this beloved, if illogical, tale about a pair of nightclub performers who become attached to two singing sisters and then help to boost the confidence of a retired-army-general-turned-Vermont-innkeeper has taken to the stage. First there was the Muny adaptation in 2000. Two years ago that version underwent radical surgery new book, new direction, new choreography. Untold dollars have been spent to repackage White Christmas. After successful holiday engagements in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston, the "new and improved" edition is on view this week at the Muny. Perhaps the most objective thing to be said about it is that everyone works hard, but the stuff they work with is (still) minor.
There's just no getting around the unkind fact that White Christmas is concocted from a weak broth. Which is not to say that diehard fans of the movie who insist on having a good time won't have it. For starters, the exuberant new Randy Skinner choreography (adapted to the Muny stage by Kelly Barclay and adroitly executed by the Muny ensemble) exceeds anything that was seen onscreen. Then there are some smooth performances in some of the lead roles. As the Haynes sisters, Shannon M. O'Bryan and Sarah Uriarte Berry are appealing. O'Bryan is a veteran of last winter's San Francisco staging, so her poise comes from experience. Berry is new to the show, but you wouldn't know that without reading her program bio. She brings a cool conviction to the Rosemary Clooney role. Stephen Bogardus (who starred in the Boston production) stands in for Bing Crosby and anchors the evening in the most effortless kind of way. Bogardus brings a rock-solid quality to tissue-thin material. He performs with such easy assurance, by evening's end you might begin to imagine how satisfying it would be to see him in a real musical.
But it's when we compare this outdoor Muny production not to the movie, but rather to the recent west and east coast stagings that contrasts become apparent. When seen on a legitimate indoor stage, this new adaptation surely must be a dazzling technological triumph of style over substance. Bostonians probably experienced a thousand more light cues than we're seeing in Forest Park. They also saw scenic designs that overwhelm the eye; our scenery is simplified. (Even so, these are the best-painted sets to be seen on the Muny stage in years. Designer Michael Anania belies Muny staffers' empty protests that "we can't" do better sets; they can and this week they have.) Although there's enough on display here to give us an inkling of what the fuss was all about when the show debuted two winters ago in San Francisco, essentially the Muny mounting like all Muny shows is about basics: words and music.
There's something unsparing about the vast, open Muny stage; it provides a litmus test for musicals. You cannot camouflage a weak show with glitz; beyond solid material, what works best in Forest Park is the human factor: talented chorus members whose names we never know, but who dance their guts out in terrifically entertaining production numbers like "Blue Skies" and "I Love a Piano" (neither of which were written for the movie, but who cares?). And deft performers like Bogardus, who knows how to tell a story without ramming it down our throats. St. Louis audiences aren't seeing the flashiest White Christmas, but for better or worse ours might be truest to the source material. If that source material remains "minor stuff," then so be it.