It used to be that as sure as you could count on awkward conversations at the office Christmas party and a stocking full of clementines on Christmas morning, you could count on being able to turn your TV to channel 11 on Christmas Eve to see a certain Bing Crosby vehicle featuring the best-selling single of all time: White Christmas. While channel 11 (it’s certainly not CHCH anymore…what is it?) has given up its annual screening, there is a different way that Torontonians can get their fix of Irving Berlin showtunes and schmaltzy holiday romance. That’s right: for the first time ever, White Christmas is being performed as a live stage musical, right here at the O’Keefe Centre! (I mean, the Hummingbird Centre…I mean, The Sony Centre.)
Was the world really demanding a White Christmas musical? Not exactly. But there has been interest for a while in mounting and Irving Berlin musical. The only problem is that although Berlin penned some of the world’s best-known musical numbers (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better),” “Blue Skies,” “Heat Wave,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” etc.), he didn’t actually write many complete musicals. In fact, his only significant musical, Annie Get Your Gun, was remounted as a work-in-progress a year or so ago at Massey Hall with Louise Pitre and Billy Ray Cyrus in the leads, and revealed itself as a hopelessly dated mess. The film White Christmas, however, is a much-beloved holiday classic chock-full of Berlin numbers.
White Christmas: The Musical pulls off the strange trick of appearing to be a more faithful adaptation of its cinematic predecessor than it actually is. There are a bunch of Berlin songs thrown in that aren’t in the original movie, the plot gets stretched and padded here and there, and some characters get significant makeovers, but it all feels like the movie. And it certainly feels like the era. The talented cast, helmed by Graham Rowat and Tony Yazbeck subbing in for Bing and Danny Kaye and Kate Baldwin and Shannon O’Bryan for Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, are all triple threats who look, sing, dance and act like it’s still 1954. Only one or two things ring as off. The briefer-than-brief appearance of a nice Jewish girl on the train to Vermont (singing “The Dreidel Song”! Holding a white and blue present!) highlights rather than diminishes the show’s throwback religious/cultural myopia and ethnocentrism. And did we really need the mincing, limp-wristed stage manager character who squeals whenever anything goes wrong? Especially considering who a lot of the show’s core audience is bound to be (if anyone other than a gay man is able to tell you the names of the film’s four leads without the use of the IMDb, they are a total creep), this comes across as a bit tasteless. Offensive stereotypes aside, there’s a lot to like about this show, with its lovely songs, high production values and very capable performers. And yes, it really does snow.