Friday, 18 November 2016

White Christmas

Image Source: Liverpool
Empire Theatre
Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Musical
Date: November 17 2016
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

"I'm dreaming of a White Christmas ..." Are these the most memorable lyrics to a Christmas song ever? It's quite possible, as Bing Crosby's original rendition is an all-time classic that has spanned generations and remains a favourite today amongst those who love the festive season. However, it's easy to forget that the song actually originated from the movie Holiday Inn, with a revised version by Bing coming to life in the 1954 movie of the same name, directed by Irving Berlin.

And it is the latter movie, White Christmas, which is the inspiration for this theatre production by BOST Musicals that is currently running the Liverpool Empire Theatre. Given that the movie was released more than 60 years ago, and that the general feel of the show is nostalgic and old-fashioned (which isn't a negative, by the way), it should be no surprise that the target audience for this stage adaptation is the older generation, many of whom will have seen the movie and would likely have fond memories of it.

After a Christmas Eve 1944 performance by Bob Wallace (Tony Prince) and Phil Davis (Chris Simmons) for their fellow US troops, including Major General Thomas F. Waverly (Frank Nance) who would be about to relinquish his position, we fast-forward several years. Bob and Phil have become big stars as a musical double act, although their off-stage personalities are very different: Phil sees himself as a ladies' man, whereas Bob is the quieter and more reserved of the two. Phil looks to remedy this by not only having he and Bob see The Haynes Sisters, but with Phil having his eye on Judy Haynes (Linzi Stefanov) and trying to spark a romance between Bob and Betty Haynes (Gina Phillips), a planned visit to Miami becomes a joint-trip to Vermont with The Haynes Sisters, with the dual intention of promoting a live show and attempting to further a potential dual romance.

The hotel that they visit, the Columbia Inn in Pine Hirst, is run by their former General, Thomas Waverly; however, an unexpected heat wave - at Christmas time, no less! - has made for an almost non-existent audience for the upcoming show, and Waverly's fortunes are hardly helped by a rejection of his attempt to re-enter the army. From there, we have several inter-linking plot strands: the two romances (neither of which run smoothly, as is the norm in such shows), the build-up to the big Christmas Eve show, Bob's plans for a surprise on-stage tribute to the General, and the muddled relationship between Waverly and his gossipy housekeeper, which not only includes the hiding of important letters relating to the inn's finances, but also has an inadvertent knock-on effect on Bob and Betty's blossoming romance, as her misjudgement of Bob's phone call about the honouring of Waverly threatens to spoil the love story altogether.

Since Bing Crosby was the main star in the 1954 film, and having been originally written by Irving Berlin, much of the appeal of White Christmas comes from the songs featured. Surprisingly, the stage show features fairly brief versions of the song White Christmas at the very beginning and very end, but this and other songs are performed very well. The female cast members seem to possess the wider vocal range of musical talents amongst the rather large ensemble of characters (when you include the many dancers during the extended routines, anyway), but the lead duo - Bob and Phil - also do a good job of bringing back memories of the most famous songs from the film for the audience. Besides White Christmas, other memorable numbers are The Old Man, Count Your Blessings (Instead Of Sheep) and Sisters (the latter of which is performed later on by a "disguised" Bob and Phil (which, whilst mildly amusing, drew an unexpectedly huge period of laughter by one member of the audience; as long as they were enjoying it then that's good, right?).

The singing performances and the associated dance routines (including a lengthy tap-dancing routine to close Act I) are the highlights of the show, as the acting performances are occasionally a little hit-and-miss with some slightly fluffed lines. There were some minor costume malfunctions and other slight production errors that appeared noticeable too, although not enough to spoil the show as a whole. I also thought that the show was very long, clocking in at nearly three hours including intermission, especially when you consider that the movie itself only lasted two hours. Certain scenes near the beginning could have been trimmed down, which would have improved the show on the whole. Partly due to the old-style dialogue and situations, some scenes felt slightly out-of-place, just because at times there wasn't an awful lot going on for the audience to keep its eye on (or ears open to).

The other comments I would make were that, in terms of some facial expressions, wigs and unexpected character appearances (such as one at the very end, which I won't spoil here), it was hard to tell if they were deliberately designed for comic effect or if, in actual fact, the humour that they provided was unintentional. Also, despite it being White Christmas, the show didn't feel particularly Christmassy. Granted, part of the story was about the lack of snow, so that can be overlooked, but it still didn't necessarily leave one with the fuzzy festive feeling of Christmas being just around the corner, which is unusual for a show that has "Christmas" in the title.

That all being said, there is a lot more to praise than to gripe about. Besides the points I made earlier, the story is well-told and easy to follow. There is one scene which features two child dancers, and they are both exceptional, especially since their routines are very complex. Speaking of the kids, Sofia Lawton, who plays the young Susan Waverly, is very good in a variety of situations. In addition, the costumes and settings, which frequently change, are of an excellent standard; whether it's the hotel, the hotel in New York or the family barn, every backdrop feels different and they, along with the glamorous and vintage attires, add a little something extra to each scene. The special effects towards the end are very realistic, and so it's clear that a lot of work has gone into making the production faithful to the original movie.

Contrary to its title, White Christmas may not provide a particularly Christmassy vibe to those who are counting down the days, and the show is by no means flawless. However, as a feel-good nostalgic experience, White Christmas is enjoyable for all ages, but especially the older generation who will remember singing along with Bing Crosby back in the day.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10 - Good

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