There hasn’t been this much tap-dancing on a Broadway stage since “42nd Street.” Yet despite its relentless effervescence, “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” is most alive in its gentler, more melancholy moments — few as there are. Arriving in New York after multiple regional stops in the past four seasons, and aiming to establish itself as an annual holiday engagement, this somewhat mechanical show feels like a road production staffed with mostly second-tier talent. More seasonal confection than full-bodied musical theater, it coasts along on the strength of its melodious numbers and sparkling visuals, which should suffice to keep the tourist trade happy.
Retooled for the stage by David Ives and Paul Blake out of the snoozy 1954 Paramount yuletide perennial that starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, the show makes little effort to fortify the movie’s flimsy plot or disguise the contrived misunderstanding that fuels its central conflict. But story is hardly the point here.
As in another vat of rehydrated eggnog being served a few blocks across town, “The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular,” the disposable narrative frame serves merely as a tree on which to hang ornamental production numbers. The producers were right to add Irving Berlin’s name to the title since the tunesmith’s work is the major attraction. Included are a handful of numbers from the movie, plus a further mix of Berlin standards and lesser-known songs interpolated with reasonable skill into the plot.
Ten years after active duty overseas in WWII, U.S. Army men Bob Wallace (Stephen Bogardus) and Phil Davis (Jeffry Denman) are a popular song-and-dance duo, scheduled to open a Christmas revue in Florida. But womanizing Phil gets distracted by comely sister act Betty (Kerry O’Malley) and Judy Haynes (Meredith Patterson). He hijacks brooding Bob into trailing the girls to a Vermont inn, where they are booked as the entertainment.
Unseasonably warm weather and lack of snow prompts an exodus of tourists, adding to the financial woes of the inn, run by Bob and Phil’s beloved commanding officer, Gen. Henry Waverly (Charles Dean). Attempting to boost business and the old man’s morale, the boys reroute the planned Florida spectacular to Vermont and use their clout with “The Ed Sullivan Show” to reassemble the troops. But circumspect Betty gets the wrong idea about the scheme, spreading more bumps on the road to her hesitant romance with Bob.
Director Walter Bobbie’s biggest hurdle is getting through the mummified book scenes, with their corny jokes. He’s helped, however, by the fact that with 22 songs stuffed into two hours and change, it’s never a long wait until the orchestra strikes up again, and the drippy dialogue gives way to polished — if not quite dazzling — vocals.
The show gets off to an engaging start. Even if Randy Skinner’s vintage Hollywood-styled choreography isn’t exactly high on imagination and the ensemble formations could use a precision-minded drill sergeant, it’s a thrill to see a large cast hammering the stage in “Happy Holiday.” But that delight soon fades as bland efficiency creeps in. Despite elegant teamwork from Denman and Patterson, who lead “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” and “I Love a Piano,” there’s something perfunctory about the execution of big numbers like these and “Blue Skies,” fronted by Bogardus.
This kind of frothy, populous presentation may floor them in the hinterlands, but New York theatergoers can see more accomplished ensembles in five-night Encores! runs. Too often, it’s the generous splashes of color and witty design details in Anna Louizos’ inventive sets or Carrie Robbins’ candy-hued costumes that catch the eye more than the cast’s busy footwork.
Only in “Snow” does Bobbie seem to be having enough fun to wink at the audience, turning that buoyantly cheesy bit of winter worship into a challenge to see how many mitten- and sweater-clad revelers can be crammed into one train compartment. Elsewhere, there’s a sameness to the upbeat numbers that makes the infrequent sober interludes a welcome change of pace.
These come exclusively from Crosby look-alike Bogardus and O’Malley, who inject some genuine warmth and frazzled heart into the saccharine proceedings, starting with their matching expressions of romantic skepticism in “Love and the Weather.” Staged on Louizos’ gorgeous New England porch, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” is lovely, while the back-to-back heartache of O’Malley’s torchy “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” and Bogardus’ haunting “How Deep Is the Ocean” provides the show’s most affecting sequence — all the more so for its clean, simple staging.
The key supporting players either try too hard or not at all. Dean sleepwalks through his scenes, making one wonder how the C.O. inspired such loyalty in his men. As the inn’s concierge and resident spotlight-seeking, Merman-esque belter, Susan Mansur mugs aggressively but is a grating substitute for the film’s wisecracking sourpuss, Mary Wickes. And the less said about Henry’s chronically perky niece, “Broadway Sue” (Melody Hollis), the better.
But however much its charms are manufactured and its energy uneven, the show undoubtedly delivers for its target audience, particularly those old enough to feel nostalgia for the postwar era it strains to recapture. There’s ample resonance in the depiction of soldiers stationed far from home and of retired servicemen struggling to redefine their role in peacetime society, not to mention preaching “count your blessings” to a crowd burdened by economic angst.
By the time the evergreen title song is heard for the second time in the enchanting snow-biz finale, most audiences will be sufficiently high on holiday spirit to sing along — and maybe even convince themselves this synthetic approximation of an old-style Broadway-Hollywood hybrid is the real thing.