‘White Christmas’ review
Time Out says
This seasonal classic will warm the cockles of your heart… eventually
Feeling Christmassy? I mean, ‘no’ is a very legitimate answer given that at time of writing it’s still November, and whatever marketers would have you believe, ‘the season’ is still essentially a lot of fuss around a religious holiday that’s of peripheral relevance to the spiritual lives of most of London’s population. But luckily, ‘White Christmas’ is here to help, with a highly effortful, endlessly kitsch attempt to administer some old-school festive magic, as brewed up in all-American songwriter Irving Berlin’s fevered imagination, clunkily adapted for the stage by David Ives and Paul Blake, and then finally translated to the West End’s mammoth Dominion Theatre.
This production originated on the similarly huge stage of the Leicester Curve, where it won hearts last Christmas. But somehow, it feels underpowered here: the 22-strong cast isn’t numerous enough to make the dance routines feel lavish (the stellar recent revival of another retro classic, ‘42nd Street’, had more than double the number of performers). Even compared to the low-stakes 1954 movie, Ives and Blake's plot is panto-thin, but the set design doesn’t deliver the kind of gorgeous panto levels of spectacle that this ridiculous confection needs.
What this plucky production does deliver is charm. In the grand tradition of most mid-twentieth-century musicals (and basically every Muppets movie) it’s a comedy about putting on a show. Wisecracking former GIs Bob and Phil semi-accidentally end up in a Vermont inn, run by the general they served under in WWII. There’s no snow, the guests have gone home, and his bills are mounting. What better way to pull in the punters than by staging a seasonal variety show?
Danny Mac and Dan Burton are a winsome central double act, puppyish and energetic enough to sell their scenes of tortuously engineered romantic misunderstandings and heavily dated horseplay, even if Michael Brandon’s charisma-light performance doesn’t make the general feel worth all their trouble. But Brenda Edwards is the real star, playing the frustrated former showgirl-turned-hotelier who keeps this show on the road. Her voice is powerful enough to make a recumbent, wine-sedated audience sit up and listen, and her natural rapport with not-at-all saccharine child performer Sasha Walters is genuinely heart-melting, in the way that much of the rest of the production tries so hard to be.
Their scenes apart, Nikolai Foster’s production too often falls back on a kind of dated, caricatured camp that makes it hard to care about these characters: Clare Halse is aquiver with cutesy mannerisms as love interest Judy, and light relief double act Rita and Rhoda are mainly there to squeal and hurl themselves at anything in trousers. There’s a shoehorned-in kiss between two male chorus members during one of the dance numbers, and that’s nice, but not the same as confronting the unattractive retro sexism and heteronormativity embedded in this story.
This probably won’t matter to the substantial chunk of the audience who are just in it to hear some dishy young folk croon ‘White Christmas’ as foamy snow falls from the rafters. And it does feel magical, just for a moment, even if it takes an awful long time to get there.