Irving Berlin, with a book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Palace Theatre, Manchester
November 22-December 4, 2021; 2.5hr
As part of the post-Covid splurge of the familiar and comforting, White Christmas - The Musical, is back at the Palace Theatre just in time for, well, just before Christmas.
Based on the famous 1954 film best known for Bing Crosby singing the title song, the musical version simplifies the plot but adds extra Irving Berlin songs.
Given what you expect from a musical, that’s a pretty good trade-off, and if November seems a little early to be dreaming of a white Christmas, the timeless quality of the extra songs more than makes up for any reluctance towards the early and unlikely celebration.
The plot is a post-war story celebrating America, male bonding, sisterhood and the power of love and entertainment. Ex-servicemen Bob Wallace [Matthew Jeans] and Phil Davis [Dan Burton] have achieved success as a song and dance duo. They follow a sister act, Judy [Emily Langham] and Betty [Jessica Daley], to Vermont, where they find their much-loved former Army commander, General Henry Waverly [Duncan Smith] running an inn. In a post WW2 setting, the lack of Vermont’s star attraction, snow, signals not a discussion about global warming but a gigantic effort to pull the troops together to boost revenue and dream of a white Christmas, which does of course arrive. It’s a secret plan, so there’s plenty of opportunity for misunderstandings.
The romance comes from Phil and Judy’s immediate attraction, while Bob and Betty take a slower, convoluted path: the Beatrice and Benedick of the piece, one might say, with song and dance instead of quality dialogue.
There are strong performances, particularly from Dan Burton, who has played Phil for a good while, and Sally Ann Triplett as "concierge" Martha Watson, who gets the best one-liners. Costumes exaggerate the New Look of the period, building glamour on style, ending with a vibrant Christmas-red collection for the final number. Chorus dancing is sharp, sleek, and entertaining, with a cool edge, a few years ahead of its time.
The undoubted star of the show is Irving Berlin, whose songs are the highlight, particularly when voices combine. Full cast numbers, arranged with complex harmonies, are a joy; the happy anticipation of Snow an early indication of the standard this company can deliver. Orchestration is tight, supportive, and strongly infused with jazz lines and flourishes. The eight-piece band, led by MD Neil MacDonald on keyboard, is superb. I particularly enjoyed the sax and clarinet playing of Andy Hunter.
This isn’t a modern musical, and won’t appeal to all, but for those who enjoy the post-war American musical style, only mildly modernised, and don’t worry about a trite story, the music makes this show a winner.
Tickets and information here