David Dodd 1:48 a.m., May 18
SDMT made a daring choice. Not the musical, which offers some of the master's most popular songs of the season, but the size of the project, which calls for near Busby Berkeley proportions. And SDMT has met the challenge with a lively production boasting 30 performers and - count 'em! - a 21-piece orchestra. They even solved the nagging Crosby Problem
It's still hard to believe that English was Izzy Baline's second language. And that the immigrant with little schooling became Irving Berlin, Yes Virginia, there was an Irving Berlin, about whose lyrics Wilfred Sheed paid the highest compliment: they "seem not so much brilliant as inevitable."
White Christmas is a posthumous pastiche. It began as a movie - Paramount, Vista Vision (first use), 1954 - starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. Fifty-years later, it became a stage-musical homage to Berlin and the holiday season.
If the plot were any skimpier, you could call it a revue. Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, Broadway stars and "Ed Sullivan Show" regulars, lack only one thing: love. Davis lures Wallace to Vermont where, low and behold, their former General runs an inn badly (the script pays comical homage to the amazing coincidences of the genre). To get their beloved leader out of the red, they'll mount a Christmas Eve extravaganza in five days - in a barn! And find a love to keep them warm.
Librettists David Ives and Paul Blake also omitted some of the movie's flashiest dialogue (as when Crosby says, "laid an egg? You laid a Vermont volleyball!"), but they did create useful set-ups for individual songs - "Snow," "Love and the Weather," "Sisters" - and let Berlin take things from there.
Along with the rich strains of the Don Le Master-led orchestra, SDMT offers a sound rarely heard in these parts: 28 feet tap-clacking the floor in sync to "Let Yourself Go." And throughout choreographer Lisa Hopkins has a lark with the large cast, especially at the top of Act two, where a row of chorus-liners sit and tap while Jill Townsend (Judy) and Jeffrey Scott Parsons (Phil) go to town on a shrunken piano. Both fill their roles capably, and Parsons dances with loose-limb freedom and crisp precision. The cast offers strong supporting efforts from Ed Hollingsworth, as General Waverly, and Karla J. Franko as the officious, over-the-top Martha Watson.
As Bob Wallace and Betty Haynes, reluctant soul mates, David Engel and Laura Dickenson perform like a matched set. Each has an outstanding voice, which is crucial because the musical breaks some songs in half, giving part to Bob and part to Betty. Dickinson's torchy "Love You Didn't Do Right By Me" and Engel's "Count Your Blessings" stand out.
Engel's a talent, but Big Crosby he isn't. So should he sing "White Christmas" and risk comparison with the iconic rendition that rings through every mall across the land?
The production smartly solves the Crosby Problem. Engel begins the number. Then he encourages the audience to sing along - in effect making us all, for one brief shining moment, Der Bingle.
Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Avenue, North Park, playing through December 23.