After the sadness and gloom of last year, I’m dreaming of a normal Christmas with all the essential ingredients – and where better to kick off festivities than at the Palace Theatre with White Christmas? With an audience keen for a night of Hollywood glamour and Christmas cheer, this musical has its work cut out to recreate the iconic, much-loved 1954 film onstage.
To an extent, it succeeds – Irving Berlin’s score is brought to glorious life by Neil MacDonald’s band of musicians, along with a host of other Berlin numbers borrowed from different sources. The sheer number of songs frequently puts the brakes on the plot, but given its basic nature – song and dance boys meet song and dance girls, and they all put on a show for a good cause – this hardly matters. Besides, it’s the musical numbers that we’re all here for: the arch, playful ‘Falling Out Of Love Can Be Fun,’ slickly performed by the three main female characters; the tap routine to an extended version of ‘I Love A Piano;’ and the smooth, Fosse-esque rendition of ‘Blue Skies’ that closes the first half are all stand outs.
However, given its roots in 1950s Hollywood and the West End, the whole show feels like it should be bigger. Ensemble numbers have less impact with a smaller chorus – particularly when the choreography is on the simpler side – and although the sets are full of period detail, they lack a certain amount of ‘wow’ factor. It feels like the original London show has been diminished rather than distilled into a touring version.
The four lead actors are great fits, vocally and visually, for this bygone musical era: Matthew Jeans is a dashing Bob Wallace; Dan Burton entertains as his quippy counterpart; Jessica Daley’s powerful voice comes to the fore in ‘Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me;’ and Emily Langham has a very Vera-Ellen-like peppiness.
The script is often not as slickly delivered as it should be, however, with comedic delivery often mistimed (which may have been down to first night nerves). But there are still laughs to be had, from the wisecracks of concierge Martha (Sally Ann Triplett) to the hammed-up reprise of ‘Sisters’ by Jeans and Burton, complete with feather fans.
There can’t be many other musicals where the finale is awaited with such sky-high expectation, and in spite of this production’s flaws, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel a warm, festive glow when the curtain rises on the last number. A stage decorated with sparkling tree and garlands, snow falling in the stalls, and the invitation to join in a singalong with the cast are all, at last, enough to channel the merry and bright magic of the original film.
White Christmas is at The Palace Theatre, Manchester from 22 November to 4 December 2021 before touring to Plymouth and Edinburgh.
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