'White Christmas' Ready To Warm Hearts This Season

Dinner-theater musical led by director from the original Broadway show

Published: Monday, December 2, 2013 11:00 am By: JOHN P. MCCARTHY Source: The Journal News

With the weather so changeable this time of year, it’s nice to know a reliable barometer of the fast-approaching holiday season can be found inside Westchester Broadway Theatre, where “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” will warm audiences for the next seven weeks.

Fluctuating temperatures and fickle affections are recurring themes in the musical, based on the beloved 1954 movie. A yuletide heat wave in Vermont must end before the title song, which Berlin reportedly wrote poolside at an Arizona hotel, can be delivered; and the vagaries of love and climatology are compared in several tunes, including a few that aren’t in the movie but were imported from the bulging Berlin songbook.

As the Eisenhower era was taking hold, the forecast for the nation was balmy, thanks in large measure to the wartime efforts of The Greatest Generation, which had earned the right to pay tribute to itself in a cozy, comforting entertainment. “White Christmas” certainly fits the bill.

Ten years after the end of WWII, Army pals Bob Wallace (Sean Montgomery) and Phil Davis (Jeremy Benton), who have a popular song-and-dance act, join forces with the Haynes sisters Betty and Judy (Lindsie Vanwinkle and Kelly Sheehan) to mount a Christmas show in the barn of a struggling inn owned by their old company commander, Gen. Henry Waverly (Jamie Ross).

Along with Berlin’s brilliant music, superlative dancing renders the stage show a welcome gift. Director Randy Skinner choreographed the original Broadway production in 2008, receiving multiple award nominations, and he has recruited some terrific hoofers for WBT’s version. Benton and Sheehan frontline the fantastic tap routine that opens Act Two.

Streamlined staging and simple sets keep the focus where it should be. Though not quite minimalist, WBT’s pared-down approach provides the performers with a clutter-free platform on which to strut their stuff. It also allows the familiar plot to advance unimpeded.

At first, it’s hard not to measure the four leads against their movie counterparts — Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. The clean-cut Montgomery doesn’t try to mimic Crosby’s soothing bass-baritone; his voice has its own toasty timbre and pairs well with Vanwinkle’s. He wins over Betty, and the audience, with the lullaby “Count Your Blessings” before cutting a mean rug during a jazzy rendition of “Blue Skies” (borrowed from another Berlin-scored film).

Vocally, Benton and Sheehan are no slouches but dancing is their forte. Karen Murphy brings brassy punch to the role of Martha, the General’s right hand. And Seth Lerner injects zany humor playing two small yet memorable characters. WBT’s orchestra sounds polished and the costumes pop during the big numbers.

The only major drawback: The title song goes by in a flash. The homey notes of “White Christmas” aren’t allowed to build to a point where they fully envelope the audience. Folks will want to hear more of this reassuring touchstone, whether or not the snow ever starts falling outside the theater walls this season.