Whatever you’ve been dreaming of, this isn’t quite it. Roughly based on the 1954 Bing Crosby film, the show follows army vets Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, a successful double act after the war, who meet performing sisters Judy and Betty Haynes. They put on a show to save a failing inn owned by the boys’ former General – and fall in love, of course.
But David Ives and Paul Blake’s adaptation, which premiered in the US in 2000, thins out the plot, weakens the characters, and removes most of the drama.
Nikolai Foster does his best with this slim material, and his likeable production, which played at Curve last year with some of the same cast, makes further changes with good intentions. There’s a diverse ensemble of performers and even a brief gay kiss. Inn manager Martha, a role usually played by a white performer, is here played by the magnificent Brenda Edwards, with a storming solo called Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.
Dan Burton particularly captures an old-time movie star feel with slightly larger-than-life expressions, inheriting his charming goofiness from the great comedians like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Clare Halse as Judy Haynes comes alive when she dances, all timeless elegance and grace, and Danny Mac’s Bob is enjoyably suave, a frosty Benedick to Danielle Hope’s sassy Beatrice.
The real star, though, is the exquisite costume design by Diego Pitarch. It’s hygge-meets-haute-couture, with numerous beautiful jumpers and winter coats, as well as stunning, swishy dresses in an array of colours.
The Dominion is a difficult home for the show and there’s a real sense that this story isn’t big enough for the house it sits in. As backstage musicals go, White Christmas is pretty low stakes – the performances take place in a barn, after all. The moments when it begins to scale up to the size of the auditorium are when Stephen Mear’s choreography is in full swing. His hypnotic routines, one part ballet to two parts Broadway, bring the whole place alive.
Trouble is, most of the songs, some from the film and others gathered from Berlin’s back catalogue, have no bearing on the story and, with one or two exceptions, are a far cry from Berlin’s best. If it weren’t for the very watchable nature of Mear’s routines, they would just be pointless filler. There’s even a 10-minute ode to the piano, for goodness sake.
The promise of an old-school film, full of romance and lovely music, made live on stage is so enticing. But the result, while watchable, is less White Christmas and more like a traditional British Christmas: not quite as much drama as you’d anticipated, a bit wet, and just a little bit disappointing.