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Holiday musical 'White Christmas' entertains, but falls flat

Shannon M. O’Bryan and Denis Lambert, center, star in I Love A Piano from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at Straz Center.

Straz Center for the Performing Arts

Shannon M. O’Bryan and Denis Lambert, center, star in I Love A Piano from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at Straz Center.

TAMPA — A musical that offers a lot of classic Irving Berlin songs doesn't need to offer a whole lot more.

The current production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas is content with that. A cast of solid singers and actors delivers fine performances of Sisters, Blue Skies and the title song, and that's enough to make for a pleasant evening of holiday entertainment.

But much about the touring production, from Atlanta's Theater of the Stars, is lackluster, and that keeps the show from sparkling. The sets, with one exception, are decent but unimpressive, the choreography is distressingly basic and the dancing often isn't as crisp and sharp as one would hope.

The stage musical is based on the 1954 film, which starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. The plot is intricate and preposterous, but trite at the same time. A famed male song-and-dance duo meets an up-and-coming sister act, and they end up together at a Vermont hotel during a rare Christmas heat wave. The hotel, it turns out, is run by the general who commanded the two guys during World War II, nine years before. He's in massive debt and the guys and gals bail him out by putting on a show in his barn. (Yes, that was already a cliché in 1954.)

There are silly complications and coincidences along the way. But it doesn't really matter. It's all just a frame for Berlin's songs, and while the show's going on it's easy to ignore that the plot has to contort itself to get from one song to another.

The leads — John Scherer, Denis Lambert, Amy Bodnar and Shannon O'Bryan — all have an impressive combination of acting and singing skills, and Ruth Williamson has some engaging moments as the hotel concierge who turns out to be a former Broadway star.

And for a while, it's refreshing to see a show that's so old-fashioned and that depends on songs and singers rather than technical flash to impress its audience. But the book, by David Ives and Paul Blake, is devoid of warmth and laughs, so even the nostalgic ambiance loses its appeal after a while.

Because Berlin is a Broadway deity, it's easy to think that every song he wrote was a classic. And the best songs in this show, including Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep) and How Deep is the Ocean? are engaging.

But some of the less-familiar songs aren't very good at all. Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun and Let Me Sing and I'm Happy are pretty awful.

There's a lot of insipid entertainment this time of year, presented to cash in on the demand for holiday shows with the requisite combination of mild sentimentality and content that won't offend anyone of any age. Irving Berlin's White Christmas is an excellent choice for families looking for harmless holiday fare, but will disappoint anyone hoping for something special.

Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at mclear@tampabay.rr.com.

. fast facts

"Irving Berlin's White Christmas"

Runs through Sunday at Morsani Hall in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Shows are 7:30 today, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. About 150 minutes. Tickets start at $43.50. (813) 229-7827 or strazcenter.org.

Holiday musical 'White Christmas' entertains, but falls flat 12/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 9:19pm]

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