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Wednesday, December 9,2009

The white stuff

Gifted performers, slick sets make ‘White Christmas’ a fun-filled musical

by ALLAN I. ROSS

Some shows sacrifice plot for spectacle or vice versa, but “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” now showing at The Wharton Center, is equal parts brain and eye candy. Good thing it’s sweets season.


This whirligig, Technicolor production zipped along as smoothly — and felt about as retro — as a Lionel Train under a tree on Christmas morning during Tuesday night’s special preview performance. But it plays less as a Christmas story than it does as an ode to the 1950s.


The gorgeous period costumes leave no doubt this is firmly set in the Eisenhower era, while the Thomas Kinkade-looking sets quick change behind the brief curtain drops with the rapidity of a cinematic cross-fade, adding to the movie-like quality of the production. You half-expect to see film scratches occasionally obscure the action.


The plot follows two former World War II GIs who perform on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and hook up with a sister act on a trip to Vermont during a warmer-thanaverage Christmas holiday. After the guys bump into their old commanding officer, who now owns the nearly broke inn at which they are staying, they concoct a madcap plot to bring a bunch of their old war buddies up for a fundraiser. The two guys fall in love with the two girls, misunderstandings nearly render the whole thing a big mess, but everyone lives … well, I’m not one to give away endings.



Kerry O’Malley plays Betty Haynes as one part Jessica Rabbit, one part Rachel from “Friends.” Her red hair, sultry voice and va-va-voom figure belie her unluckyin-love, heart-of-gold heroine. And she’s got the one-two punch of pipes and pathos — when she belts out “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” you really, honestly feel some cur has done her wrong.


Stephen Bogardus, meanwhile, plays the inexplicably unattached Bob Wallace as a kind of sad sack, me-last kind of guy; he’s too busy goofing around and keeping his partner Phil Davis (David Elder) in line with the ladies to get any himself. O’Malley and Bogardus originated these roles on Broadway, and their real chemistry keeps you interested.


That said, Lorna Luft’s majestic stage presence alone is enough to lift this show into must-see territory. Luft, who is Judy Garland’s daughter, at one point rattled the timbers of the barn set with her breakout number. It’s a good thing her character isn’t onstage more, or she would have snatched the show away from the leads. Some knowing chuckles were heard when her character explained her stellar voice thusly: “You don’t learn that, you’re born with it.” Truer words may never have been spoken.


The “Snow” number, interestingly, ends up looking like one of those Morgan Fairchild Old Navy ads (or is it the other way around?). The surreal “Blue Skies” and “I Love a Piano” pieces are infectiously stirring, but the title number feels glossed over both times it’s sung (although there is an audience participation sing-along, so bone up on your lyrics if you go). But no songs felt like filler here.


“Remember when you told me to have fun?” asks Wallace in the middle of a rousing, semi-drag part of the show, when the men are singing the girls’ parts. “Well I’m having it!” So were we.


‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas’


Through
Dec. 13 7:30 p.m. Wednesday & Thursday 8 p.m. Friday 2 & 8 p.m.
Saturday 1 & 6:30 p.m. Sunday $31.50 - $67.50 1 (800) WHARTON
www.whartoncenter.com


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