'Irving Berlin's White Christmas' spreads good cheer at the Hippodrome

'Irving Berlin's White Christmas' spreads good cheer at the Hippodrome
(Kevin Whit, handout photo)

There should always be room for an old-fashioned burst of holiday entertainment, free of complicated thoughts or challenging philosophy, well stocked with song and dance. "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," now at the Hippodrome, fits the bill nicely.

To be sure, it does place a few demands on audiences. For a start, you have to suspend all cynicism and stifle the urge to groan at obvious jokes and turns of plot. Not that there is much of a plot. And you have to be open to some second- or third-drawer Berlin ditties along the way.


Once you accept those terms -- if I can do it, you can do it -- you might be surprised how remarkably easy it is to enjoy this snowflake-thin variation on the let's-put-on-a-show business that goes with vintage musical comedy territory.

Adapted by David Ives and Paul Blake from the 1954 Paramount Pictures movie, "White Christmas" merrily sprinkles cliches around like tinsel, coating a story about two World War II buddies who build a successful career as entertainers after returning to civilian life.

After adding a sister act, and getting tangled in the inter-personal possibilities that entails, the guys end up helping out their grand old commander, now the owner of a languishing Vermont inn. The rescue scheme involves, yes, staging big production numbers in a converted barn. As director Norb Joerder has noted, this musical's got everything but Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

"White Christmas," launched more than a decade ago at the Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis, has played Broadway and traveled widely. By now, it may be too well-oiled a vehicle. The opening night performance at the Hippodrome had a little less of the zing and freshness I recall when the show played the Kennedy Center last year with most of the same cast.

That said, there's enough zip, not to mention charm, to make this time-warp-y experience a lot of fun. Kenneth Foy's cute, clever and economical scenic design conjures up sufficient atmosphere (a train scene is especially effective). And Carrie Robbins has costumed the show with great flair, creating a retro feast of vivid colors and styles.

James Clow is an appealing presence as Bob Wallace, the ex-GI with a resistance to romance. His warm, sturdy voice is a boon throughout, especially caressing "How Deep Is the Ocean" in a scene with Trista Moldovan. She makes an engaging foil as Betty Haynes and gets to demonstrate her vocal chops in the lesser, but still respectable, Berlin ballad, "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me."

As the other couple at the center of the show, David Elder makes a limber and amusing Phil Davis, Meredith Patterson a vibrant Judy Haynes. The two make the most of their Act 2 opener, "I Love a Piano," which comes with a terrific tap routine (Randy Skinner's choreography is at its most sizzling here).

The sturdy supporting cast includes Baltimore native Ruth Williamson in a knowing performance as inn manager Martha Watson. She nails "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" and, joined by Moldovan and Patterson, puts real spark into one of Berlin's lesser creations, "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun" from the score of "Miss Liberty."

Joseph Costa manages to flesh out the thinly drawn, rather one-note character of Gen. Waverly with considerable finesse; he even makes the sentimental final scene ring true. Heading up the there-are-no-small-parts department is Cliff Bemis, who tackles a variety of roles, most colorfully that of the stage hand Ezekiel (just the way he lists when he walks can be funny).

Chorus members keep the smiles going strong and execute terpsichorean duties with aplomb. Michael Horsley leads a snappy orchestra of mostly locally recruited players through Larry Blank's zesty orchestrations.

A few things in the show could use tweaking or punching up -- Betty's crucial return to Vermont before the finale looks awfully matter-of-fact, for example -- but Joerder keeps most of the action buzzing in nimble, well-timed fashion. Above all, he ensures a steady delivery of holiday cheer.

Sentimental and cute, but never cloying, "White Christmas" glistens, just like the musicals you used to know.