Frozen in time

Dec 6, 2006 at 12:00 am

When White Christmas hit theaters in 1954 as a semi-remake of Holiday Inn (the first movie in which Irving Berlin's Oscar-winning holiday anthem appeared), it was almost immediately recognized as an American classic. And despite the fact that the film often gets panned by critics as fluffy, viewing audiences have made it a holiday perennial and the title song a Christmastime standard. White Christmas had everything a spoiled American could want out of a piece of entertainment: stars, song and dance, and an unabashed patriotism that could only exist in a pre-Vietnam-era USA. At a time in America when most middle-class folk were still doing their best impression of a nuclear family — while the prospect of nuclear war loomed in the distance — White Christmas was a perfectly pleasant addition to the cultural tapestry.

The film starred dyed-in-the-wool performers like Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen — which probably accounts for much of its success — but what happens when a chestnut of this caliber is adapted from film to stage, more than 50 years later, and presented as a Broadway-style holiday show at the Fox Theatre in Detroit? Can the transition even hope to speak to today's audiences?

Gosh darn it, Beav, it can.

Thankfully, the production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas at the Fox Theatre offers the same so-sweet-it's-fantasy appeal as the movie version. Like the film, the jokes are corny, the love stories are innocent and the dance numbers are over the top. But how does such a silly and mawkish storyline translate to today's callous American? (Synopsis: After World War II, GIs Bob Wallace and Phil Davis team up to become a famous song-and-dance act. When the duo meets singing sister act Betty and Judy Haynes, the boys follow the gals to a Vermont lodge where they are booked to perform a Christmas show. Once they arrive, they discover that their former commander, General Waverly, is the lodge owner. When it's uncovered that the commander is about to lose his lodge, a fantastical show is cooked up to help save the day.) The story translates because its saccharine sweetness is delivered with two spoonfuls of real sugar. Spoonful one? Song. Spoonful two? Dance. Director Walter Bobbie was wise not to modernize the story or the look.

Even without Crosby's buttery booo-booo-booo-booo-ing and Clooney's flawless bellows, tunes like "White Christmas," "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," "Sisters" and "The Best Things Happen When You are Dancing" are an absolute treat.

This production is an ultra-Christmas-y and eye-popping romp. Standouts include Shannon O'Bryan, who plays Judy Haynes, and Mark Ledbetter as Phil Davis. Their Busby Berkeley-esque musical number, "I Love a Piano," is alone worth the price of admission.

And the set designs are awe-inspiring — within seconds, an enormous '50s-era TV studio becomes a claustrophobic boxcar, and a 30-second interlude is plenty of time for the wholesome Vermont lodge to transform into a smoky NYC jazz club. The styling is dead nuts too: Any retrophile or fan of 1950s fashion would be impressed.

If you are looking for serious theater or even a Dickens-type yuletide offering, Irving Berlin's White Christmas is not for you. It's clear in its purpose and successful in the execution: family entertainment oozing with holiday mirth, toothy grins, tap dancing, carols, decked halls, red velvet and, of course, lots of snow.


Runs Wednesday-Sunday until December 30 at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave.; 313-471-6611. An American Sign Language interpreter will translate the 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15, show. Tickets are $20-$100.

Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]