Robert Tanitch reviews Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at Dominion Theatre, London W1
The American composer and lyricist Irving Berlin died in 1989 aged 101. He had written songs for 30 Broadway shows and 17 Hollywood films. He had published 3,000 songs. Not bad, as he said, for a poor immigrant boy who can’t read music. Berlin was born in Russia and came to the US at the age of 2.
The film, on which it is based, was released in 1954. It was never that good but it has always been popular with audiences who enjoy schmaltz and kitsch and want to hear Bing Crosby sing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”
Fred Astaire turned down the film and Donald O’Connor was not available and that’s how Danny Kaye came to be in it; but it wasn’t a role in which he could use his talents. The female leads were played by Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney.
The book is cringingly sentimental. Two World War 2 buddies (played by Aled Jones and Tom Chambers) rally round when their former commander, who runs a winter sports holiday inn, faces bankruptcy. They do it in the time honoured Hollywood musical tradition of putting on a show. They are joined by two singing sisters (played by Louise Bowden and Rachel Stanley).
Irving Berlin was always at his best with individual songs rather than a complete score. The stage musical (which premiered in San Francisco in 2004) tries to enliven things by adding old songs, such as “Blue Skies”, which Berlin wrote in 1926. The chorus girls in jacket, hat and stockings are costumed to look like Judy Garland looked in Summer Stock in the “Get Happy” number.
Morgan Young’s old-fashioned production, aimed at uncritical family audiences, lacks imagination. The performances are bland. There is just one genuine show-stopper: the tap-dancing “I Love a Piano” number, which opens the second half.