In 1942, songwriter Irving Berlin was commissioned to pen several season-oriented tunes for a film titled “Holiday Inn.” Among them was the ballad “White Christmas,” a melody originally written in 1935.
Neither Berlin, who was Jewish, nor the singer Bing Crosby, who was Catholic, were overly impressed with the tune’s staying power and thought another of that film’s ballads would be the break-out hit.
So much for the insight of insiders.
“White Christmas” went on to become an all-time bestseller with the Crosby version the best-selling single of all time.
In 1954, it was the title of a semi-sequel, also starring Crosby, also set in a struggling Vermont inn, also featuring a score by Irving Berlin. Never one to let sleeping musicals lie, it still took more than 45 years to transfer that movie to the stage.
Since 2000, however, it is a sure bet that “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” will pop up, live and in color, on a stage near you, just in time to ring in the holiday season.
This year, the stage is in the Bristol Opera House where the Elkhart Civic Theatre production opened a three-weekend run Friday evening. For those of an age, these are the melodies you grew up with. For those younger, these are the melodies you undoubtedly will be hearing for the rest of your lives and even beyond..
Pay no attention to the story. It is simply a bit of whimsy on which to hang the music. It follows two song-and-dance men — Bob Wallace (Dustin Crump) and Phil Davis (Zach Rivers) — as they say farewell to army life and return to the nightclub circuit. Here they meet singing-and-dancing sisters Betty (Kelsey Crump) and Judy (Rachel Hall) Haynes and join the girls for their upcoming gig at an inn in Vermont.
On arrival they find retired Gen. Henry Waverly (Michael Case), their former commander, now owner of the inn and facing bankruptcy for lack of snow which equals lack of customers. Sharing the unwelcome warm weather are Waverly’s granddaughter Susan (Lilly Betts) and his housekeeper/assistant Martha Watson (Stephanie Yoder), both of whom are stage struck.
In the “Let’s put on a show here” (a la1940s Mickey Rooney), the boys call on their nightclub cast, TV connections, army and former army buddies and prepare to save the day, all, of course, to surprise the general.
Fortunately, the strong point for the ECT production, under the direction of John Shoup and assistant Geoff Trowbridge, is the vocals. Solo, duo or ensemble, with solid support from conductor Mark Swendsen and seven excellent instrumentalists, they make Berlin’s marvelous melodies a pleasure to hear, for the first or 100th time.
Even if you are familiar with the movie, the theatrical version’s score has added several “new” Berlin numbers and eliminated one or two from the film.
The best addition is “I Love A Piano,” an up-tempo tap number which opens the second act with an energetic performance by Rivers, Hall and the ladies of the chorus. Designed by choreographer Tom Myers, It is a high point of the show which, opening night, was a bit off the mark.
The uneven pace undoubtedly has come up to tempo but the setting for most of the action is, of necessity, a barn and the resulting brown-on-brown is location-required but too muddy to be musical. The shots of color come late.
All things considered, however, “White Christmas” is definitely here to stay in the holiday pantheon of celebratory productions.
And it won’t be alone too long.
The show from which this musical got its theme — and its theme song — “Holiday Inn,” just opened on Broadway.
Guess nothing says Christmas like Irving Berlin!!
“WHITE CHRISTMAS” plays Friday through Sunday and Nov. 18-19 in the Bristol Opera House on S.R. 120 in Bristol. ouse on S.R. 20 in Bristol For r
For show times and reservations, call (574) 848-4116 from 1 to 5:30 p.m. weekdays.