Strong singing, tap dancing, and the wintery setting in “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” warm the heart with nostalgia.
The production, which San Diego Musical Theatre delivered to the Birch North Park Theatre Friday, is entertaining and sparkly, but showing its age, like a holiday card from 1954 that was lost in the mail.
The songs – 17 of them – are timeless. Adapted from the film (with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen), the score includes “White Christmas,” which triggers a sing-a-long at the end of the show. Note that Crosby’s version remains the top-selling single of all time. Personally, I get a kick out of Elvis’ rendition.
While the music is big and here to stay, the saccharine storyline in “White Christmas” has not aged as well. Director Todd Nielsen does not stray far from the film. Some of the gags are as stale as the gingerbread cookies I discovered at the bottom of the box of tree decorations.
The plot revolves around two couples searching for love.
Bob Wallace (David Engel in the stoic Crosby role) and Phil Davis (Jeffrey Scott Parsons in the playful Kaye role) are a song and dance team.
The first-act World War II scene, with Bob and Phil entertaining the troupes in 1944, jumps ahead 10 years to see them perform their song-and-dance act on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which was once the pinnacle of showbiz success.
The guys happen to catch Betty and Judy Haynes in a New York nightclub. In this production, Laura Dickenson is splendid as the sultry Betty, and Jill Townsend shines as the perky Judy.
Judy and Phil hit it off from the start. The other couple struggles.
When Bob asks Betty if she is married, she spews out her drink. Dickinson’s Betty is so glamorous, that we are shocked, and it’s a humorous relief to see her mouth the words, “What am I doing here?” Oh, Betty and Bob. They can’t seem to communicate, but obviously, they have chemistry.
Before you can say Jingle Bells, Phil tricks Bob into going on a train ride with the women, but Bob thinks they’re going to Miami for their sun-soaked holiday show. Instead they end up in Pine Tree, Vermont.
Another “can you believe it” is discovering that Bob and Phil’s crusty old General Waverly (Ed Hollingsworth) owns the local inn and needs their help.
The cast is terrific on the train, leaning and breaking into the song “Snow.” Comedic timing is spot-on when the orchestra director announces “Providence…” in a garbled nasal conductor’s voice. Snoring passengers and Eastern accents are good for a chuckle.
A modern-day take might have the guys and gals begging friends to help save the general from financial ruin via Facebook and Twitter. Nope. In this show, they call on their old Army pal who produces “The Ed Sullivan Show,” ably done by Brandon Joel Maier.
The orchestra, directed by award-winning San Diego director Don Le Master, is displayed on three risers and has a smart jazzy sound.
The leads are pros with pleasant voices and presence. There’s little room for character development within the weak plot, yet Engel as Bob turns in a believable and enjoyable performance. Dickinson’s role as Betty is also rewarding; her poignant interpretation of “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and duet with Bob, “How Deep is the Ocean,” are highlights of the production.
Townsend and Parsons as the energized couple Judy and Phil turn in the best dancing. Both are excellent tappers who grab rhythms and don’t forget they have arms. It is a joy to see tap on a professional level for a change.
In “The Best Things Happen When You Dance,” choreographer Lisa Hopkins throws in complex syncopation and leaps, yet they make it back to their chairs in fine time. The ensemble joins the couple in “I love a Piano,” which becomes a swirl of dancers and stools until they regroup and find harmony in time-steps.
Though visually well cast for the role, timing and pacing trouble Hollingsworth in his portrayal of a general searching for meaning after military service. His final speech was not fully realized on Friday. A youngster had troubles with pitch. A section where the cast fiddles around with mistletoe dragged.
Karla J. Franko, as the bossy and deceitful desk clerk Martha, is the fireball character in act two, hitting notes, quick on the repartee, and sassy while dancing with a top hat and cane.
Costumes by Deborah Roberts range from lovely gowns in peacock blue and corny red velvet Santa frocks to Broadway chorus line getups and ski sweaters. Roberts worked for Radio City Music Hall and the Rockettes Christmas Show, which may explain the bare legs. One snappy dance section has men and women donned in jackets, though the women have no pants, just those tan stockings. Some of the curly wigs are scary. Fans of vintage clothing will positively swoon.
Sets are numerous and clever. A set designer is not listed in the program, but they move swiftly and harken back to another age. Imagine a time when attractive people wore evening wear, and went to fancy nightclubs, and sipped potent cocktails at private tables, surrounded by white curtains cascading from above.
There are many nostalgic touches that send you back in time, such as the cigarette girl. And when was the last time we saw a live commercial for laundry detergent? Rita Tabb and Stephanie Wolfe are delightful bimbos who dance and squeal for “Oxydol” and purity. And while it may only be 50 degrees and raining in San Diego, in “White Christmas,” it snows just a little.