REVIEW: Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

REVIEW: Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

Stage adaptation fresh as newly fallen snow

Some might consider the first week of November a little early to pull out their red and green flannels and luxe red dresses and get into the Christmas spirit.

But the opening night audience at “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at the Walton Arts Center wouldn’t be counted among them. Tuesday night’s nearly full house for the show, which kicks off its national tour here in Fayetteville, was a blend of ages, families, couples and friends ready for a little holiday cheer.

It seemed most in the audience knew and loved the story of the classic film starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, but there were a handful in attendance experiencing the musical for the first time. Actors Sean Montgomery in the role of Crosby’s Bob Wallace and Jeremy Benton taking over Kaye’s Phil Davis return to the “White Christmas” national tour for the third year, as do their love interests Kerry Conte and Kelly Sheehan in their respective roles as sisters Betty and Judy Haynes. It’s after World War II, and army buddies Wallace and Davis have established themselves as a song-and-dance duo. Then they meet fellow performers the Haynes sisters, and Davis and Judy devise a scheme to insert a little romance into Wallace and Betty’s lives. The men wind up at the Vermont inn where the sisters are booked to perform, the failing inn turns out to be owned by the duo’s beloved general from their army days, and the foursome decide a big, surprise Christmas variety show may just bring in enough money to save the inn.

The song book contains nearly all the numbers from the film with a few additional Berlin tunes thrown in, making for an even stronger soundtrack than the movie, in my opinion. Some of the weaker numbers included in the variety show have been replaced for the stage version, while other Berlin songs like “Love and the Weather,” “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” and “How Deep Is the Ocean” fill out the song book and further flesh out some of the characters.

My favorite addition has to be “I Love a Piano” (originally sung by Judy Garland in “Easter Parade”), performed by Davis and Judy plus the ensemble as a sensational tap number. Tuesday’s audience was cheering and expressing their awe even before the end of the routine. In a post-show interview (shown in the video) Montgomery and Conte admit the song is one of their favorite moments in the show as well.

Though the musical is the same basic narrative as the original film, I was pleasantly surprised at how some of the minor script changes and elements of adapting to the stage imbue the show with freshness. Though the setting is a different era — when Ed Sullivan and song-and-dance acts and extended dance sequences were standard entertainment — the quality of the cast, the dynamism of the music (provided by a live ensemble) and the visual spectacle of the costumes and set give the story a vitality I think can hold the attention of a modern audience just fine, even if they don’t have a nostalgia for the film.

At half an hour longer than the movie, the musical has time to further develop a few characters and relationships, but does slightly skimp in other places, specifically Wallace and Betty’s evolution as a couple. Each of the major and minor characters has their moment (or a few) to shine though and, personally, it’s hard to pick a standout performance. Montgomery and Benton are reminiscent of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in “Singin’ in the Rain” in their humor, timing and talent; Conte’s charm and rich vocals — like Rosemary Clooney’s in the original role — opposite Sheehan’s spirited Judy make them a delight; Conrad John Schuck’s Gen. Waverly provides the most emotional moments of the show with his touching performance; and both Karen Ziemba as hotel concierge Martha Watson and Makayla Joy Connolly as the general’s granddaughter Susan (a role she shares with Bella Yantis) stunned with their “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” solos. Really. I saw a ripple of surprise run through the crowd when they both got their moment.

I saw Benton say in a press interview from a previous tour that “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” gives audiences surprises they didn’t know they wanted. I’d say that’s a nice way to sum it up. No one comes to this show wanting too much surprise; you want the show you’re nostalgic for. But for me, the slight variations and unexpected delights made the show that much more enjoyable.


‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas’

WHEN — 8 p.m. Nov. 10, 2 & 8 p.m. Nov. 11, 2 p.m. Nov. 12

WHERE — Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville

COST — $36-$75

INFO — 443-5600 or

Categories: Theater