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Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

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Whatever the merits of the national touring production parked at London’s Dominion, this Irving Berlin songfest is approached very differently in Leeds, where West Yorkshire Playhouse has been granted the rights to develop the first UK non-facsimile version of Walter Bobbie’s 2004 Broadway production.

It’s not just that the let’s-put-on-a-show-in-a-barn theme plays well in the barn-like Quarry auditorium – director Nikolai Foster has nailed this challenging space before with his acclaimed reappraisals of A Christmas Carol and Annie.

Or that the show goes easy on the snowflake pullovers while reducing traces of sugary Hollywoodised Christmas cheer to healthier tolerance levels.

Foster and his team have had a major rethink of David Ives and Paul Blake’s book based on the 1954 Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye film.

By rooting the story of friendship between song and dance buddies Bob Wallace and Phil Davis more firmly in the rough reality of their Second World War experiences, there’s a surprisingly sharp dramatic edge to their subsequent on-off romantic entanglements with the sassy showbiz Haynes sisters.

But apart from making the narrative and characters far more credible, the major difference here is the overall approach to the look, sound and energy of the piece, which is now not just a tinselly show about a bunch of friends coming together at Christmas to save a resort in a snow-free Vermont, but an affectionate homage to mid-1950s Americana.

Matthew Wright’s design makes imaginative use of advertising graphic styles and employs a colour palette for costumes that could have stepped out from a 1950s magazine. Backdrops and slide-on sets and props enable the action to focus on the more intimate scenes but also open up the stage for big-scale glitzy production numbers that, thanks to Nick Winston’s cracking choreography, also look as if they’ve come straight from an NBC all-star television spectacular.

The 1950s retro theme extends into the jazzy echoes of Miles Davis and George Shearing underscoring Jason Carr’s immaculate new small-group and vocal arrangements that breathe new musical life into Berlin songbook standards such as Blue Skies and How Deep is the Ocean.

But even with such enormous creative effort and attention to detail, it still takes far too long to reach the final scene where treetops glisten and days are merry and bright. Still, there’s plenty of vocal power and on-stage chemistry between Darren Day, Oliver Tompsett, Emma Williams and Holly Dale Spencer as the four show folk who find true love. And Melanie La Barrie’s Martha channelling Ethel Merman in Let Me Sing and I’m Happy would stop this show at any time of the year.

  • West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
  • November 24-January 17, PN December 2
  • Authors: Irving Berlin music/lyrics, Davis Ives, Paul Blake book
  • Director: Nikolai Foster
  • Design: Matthew Wright set/costume, Guy Hoare lighting, Sebastian Frost sound
  • Musical director: Tom Kelly
  • Choreographer: Nick Winston
  • Technical: Jason Carr orchestrations, Kay Magson casting, Jane Thompson company stage manager, Julie Issott stage manager, Victoria Marzetti head of wardrobe, Helen Keane wig supervisor
  • Cast includes: Darren Day, Melanie La Barrie, Sion Tudor Owen, Holly Dale Spencer, Oliver Tompsett, Emma Williams
  • Producer: West Yorkshire Playhouse
  • Running time: 2hrs 40mins

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The Stage
The Stage is a British weekly newspaper and website covering the entertainment industry, and particularly theatre. It was founded in 1880. It contains news, reviews, opinion, features, and recruitment advertising.