“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at the Orpheum Theatre: I’m dreaming of a better script

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On the night of November 25th, 2014, I attended a showing of “White Christmas” at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. It was well before Christmas, and the city was already coated in white.

White Christmas, the stage adaptation of Irving Berlin’s movie musical, is “about two army-turned-showbiz buddies who put on a show in a picturesque Vermont inn, finding their perfect mates in the bargain.”* Scene One opens on the two army guys, Bob and Phil, in 1944, performing a holiday stand-up show for their World War II battalion. The rest of the play takes place ten years later, in the winter of 1954. Bob and Phil’s talents have become famous.

The script of White Christmas is true to that of a ‘50s movie–quick quips, slapstick gags, and dated-but-not-hated phrases like “blue skies”. In ‘50s movies, however, the cinematography allows us to see the feelings behind the characters’ masks, so to speak. We are presented with several different angles of Humphrey Bogart’s face, chilling glares from Audrey Hepburn, and some of the prettiest and least mascara-smeared weeping that we will ever see.

Delivered from the stage, the lines and the characters speaking them felt cold, flat, and materialistic, with the exception of Trista Moldovan’s Betty, whose unrelenting pessimism held as much underlying emotion as it held bark and bite. It appeared to me as though the characters lacked feelings, rather than as though they were hiding them behind playful banter.

Funny lines were delivered at but not for the audience, with what seemed like premeditated expectation of laughter. Additionally, the main sources of humor for the show were jokes that I personally find sexist, on both ends of the spectrum, and therefore offensive. While I understand that jokes such as these were present in movies of the time, I do not understand the choice to include them in the script as a prevalent hookline for laughs with no apparent intention of use as commentary on gender, sexism, or the changing times.

By the middle of the first act, I was bored, uncomfortable and slightly offended. Then came the dancing. Oh, my goodness, the dancing.

At the end of Act One explodes a breathtaking, jaw-dropping, edge-of-your-seat song and dance: “Blue Skies”. Act Two opens with an even tappier “I Love A Piano”, in which Kaitlyn Davidson (Judy) and Jeremy Benton (Phil) tap a capella atop a miniature baby grand. In general, the show perked up during Act Two, presumably due to the positive increase in ratio of dance to dialogue.

While I hold many disagreements with the choices of the writers and director, I am awed at the talent and work ethic of the entire cast and crew. How many hours did they have to practice in order to tap dance in perfect synchronization? How on Earth were they able to create wearable Christmas trees? I hope that they get paid well for their work, because it is truly incredible.

If you go to White Christmas, please, tune out the jokes. Sleep through the banter. But when the dancers come onstage, you’d better be wide awake.

*(Thomas L. Hoch, President/CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust, in playbill for “White Christmas”)