“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” builds to a warm holiday conclusion

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The cast of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” dressed all in white costumes and dancing on stage.
The cast of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at Bucks County Playhouse through December 31, 2023. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jeremiah James and Jarran Muse performing while the cast are sitting, laughing and applauding.
Jeremiah James and Jarran Muse with the cast of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at Bucks County Playhouse through December 31, 2023. Photo by Joan Marcus.

For their final show of the year, the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, PA offers Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, an adaptation of the 1954 film. The film, which starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, featured both old and new songs by Berlin, including the title song which first appeared in 1942. Bucks County’s stage adaptation, by David Ives and Paul Blake, takes the film’s story as its base, adding other songs from the massive Berlin catalog to create a new tale.

The show starts near a battlefield in Europe in 1944. Soldiers Bob Wallace (Jeremiah James) and Phil Davis (Jarran Muse) put on a Christmas show to entertain their fellow soldiers, until the company’s leader, General Henry Waverly (Richard E. Waits), intervenes.

The story skips forward to 1954. Wallace and Davis are successful entertainers and producers, winding up their latest show a few weeks before Christmas. Before leaving on a working holiday in Florida, they catch the act of Betty and Judy Haynes (Ashley Blanchet, Kaitlyn Frank), sisters of one of their war buddies. The sisters are taking their act to a ski resort in Vermont for the holidays; Phil connives to change the boys’ tickets from Florida to Vermont, hoping to get Bob’s mind off business and on romance.

They arrive in Pine Tree, VT, which is snowless in the middle of a heat wave. The resort is an inn, running in the red, into which General Waverly has sunk all his savings. He is running the inn with his visiting granddaughter Susan (Mackenzie Reff at the performance I attended) and his jill-of-all-trades housekeeper, Martha Watson (Ruth Gottschall). In an attempt to keep the General financially afloat, Bob and Phil decide to bring up their company and stage their newest show at the inn, with the Haynes sisters as a featured act.

The first act of the show, I regret to say, is mediocre. While each of the four leads have their chances to shine, they have not been directed (by Bucks County favorite Hunter Foster) to show enough individual personality to set themselves apart from the memory of the film’s original stars. Also, the choreography by Richard Riaz Yoder is heavily tap-oriented and while competent, it’s not spectacular. I also got the impression that the downstage mikes were set to increase the sound of the taps, making for some very odd audio effects during ensemble dances. However, by the end of the first act and going into the rest of the show, the cast seemed to be more relaxed and having more fun with their numbers.

The cast of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” dancing on stage.
Jarran Muse as Phil Davis and Kaitlyn Frank as Judy Haynes with the cast of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at Bucks County Playhouse through December 31, 2023. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jeremiah James sings well enough, especially in the first act number “Count Your Blessings”, sung as a pseudo-lullaby to Mackenzie Reff, and again in the second act number “How Deep Is the Ocean?” Unfortunately, especially during ensemble dance numbers like the first act finale “Blue Skies,” James is positioned as a still point on a stage full of motion — a mistake, considering that his character is supposed to be a song-and-dance man.

Ashley Blanchet is also mostly unused in the dance numbers, but delivers a powerful rendition of the ballad “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” that perfectly fits her portrayal of the emotionally-guarded Betty, and her scenes with Kaitlyn Frank’s Judy show a knack for dry comedy. Frank also shines when paired with Jarran Muse, both being good singers and fine dancers alone and together, especially in the second act curtain raiser “I Love a Piano”. The entire company brings the show to a romantic, upbeat ending with “I Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”.

I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of comedy and song given to the secondary characters. Ruth Gottschall’s Martha, a former entertainer, scores in the first act with “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”, reprised by Mackenzie Reff in the second act, and the second act’s “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun”, a trio with Blanchet and Frank. Richard E. Waits’ General Waverly mines the crotchety older soldier for comedic effect, as does Jay Aubrey Jones with his tight-lipped handyman Ezekiel. Gottschall, Reff, Waits, and Jones all provide humor as each of them succumbs to the allure of show business. Kat Katona and Stephanie Eve Parker also offer laughs as Rita and Rhoda, two over-the-top chorines chasing Phil Davis. In fact, the whole ensemble, while given somewhat repetitive choreography, create a generous sense of fun whenever they’re on stage; to give them credit, they are Ms. Katona, Ms. Parker, Caitlin Belcik, Michael Harp, Lauralyn McClelland, Joey Socci, and Renell Taylor.

Music director Jeffrey Campos ably led a talented seven-piece orchestra through the many moods of Irving Berlin’s music. Nicole V. Moody’s costume designs were perfect, whether for entertainers in a Vermont barn, innkeepers and handymen, or swanky nightclub singers.

While overall I enjoyed the show, as did the rest of the audience, I felt that what could have been a light holiday gift is too often a flightless lump of Christmas pudding. Irving Berlin’s songs, familiar and unexpected, provide a modicum of saving holiday grace, as do the performances. As a warm Christmas present suitable for the entire family, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas makes for a pleasant enough 2½ hours in the theatre.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is presented by the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, PA through Dec. 31, 2023. For tickets, or for more information, contact the Playhouse at 215-682-2121 or visit bcptheater.org.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.