From the opening bars of "Happy Holidays" at the top of "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," Brian D'Arcy James and Jeffry Denman set a tone that is so crisp it nearly sizzles. And that's before they've even begun to dig into Randy Skinner's sleek choreography and Walter Bobbie's brilliant direction.
"Irving Berlin's White Christmas," which returned last night to the Wang Theatre after skipping last year's holiday season, has the same heart as the earlier production, but James and Denman, who created the roles for the original San Francisco production, seem to bring everyone's performance level up a notch. These two have the wonderful ability to deliver routines and production numbers with incredible polish and make it look effortless.
Bobbie and his creative team, including book writers David Ives and Paul Blake, take their inspiration from the classic Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye film, in which two former Army buddies who've found success as song-and-dance men wind up in Vermont helping out their former general. Along the way, they meet two song-and-dance women and, of course, romantic complications ensue.
But Bobbie wasn't content to simply stage the film, and he opens the story up to make room for more songs from the overstuffed Irving Berlin catalog. Although they've dumped the minstrel number and only reference "It's Good to be Back in the Army," from the film, they've added such Berlin classics as "Blue Skies" and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." Some are simply opportunities for production numbers, like the breathtaking Act II opener, "I Love a Piano," while others cleverly introduce characters or even move the story along. But it's Bruce Pomahac's vocal arrangements that really give this "White Christmas" a unique personality. Songs that seem so familiar, like "Count Your Blessings," move almost into a minor key, while turning "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" into a medley with "How Deep is the Ocean," is simply inspired.
While James and Denman are clearly the leaders, New Hampshire native Kerry O'Malley, who is reprising her role here as Betty Haynes, and Meredith Patterson, who originated the role of Judy Haynes, are more than matches for James and Denman. O'Malley's torchy version of "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" nearly brings down the house, while Patterson shines in "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun."
"White Christmas" revels unapologetically in its old-fashioned musical format, in which sets slide away to make room for a romantic production number, as in "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing," or passengers crowd into a train to turn "Snow" into an expression of joy. Skinner makes all the choreography flow lightly and easily, and yet his dancers move with precision. Many members of the cast are veterans of earlier productions of "White Christmas" and they seem to have relaxed into the show without losing an ounce of energy and enthusiasm. The tap sequence for "I Love a Piano" is almost worth the price of admission alone.
Even though more songs are added, and production numbers are big and beautiful, director Bobbie keeps the show moving briskly, so that when we do come to the snow-sprinkled finale (yes, it does snow on the audience, too), it hardly seems time to go. That's OK, Berlin's songs keep you humming all the way home.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review of the musical "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" in yesterday's Style & Arts section gave an incorrect first name of performer Kerry O'Malley.