Review: White Christmas (Curve, Leicester)
The hit musical based on the classic film comes to Leicester
Pub quiz question: in which Hollywood movie did the classic Irving Berlin song "White Christmas" get its first outing? No, not the 1954 film of the same name but Holiday Inn, a dozen years earlier and one for which the man responsible for some of the world's greatest songs won an Oscar.
Berlin had found fame 30 years before that, with his breakout hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band", and went on to write more than a thousand songs including "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "God Bless America". "White Christmas" – at least partly written in California – had been intended as something tongue-in-cheek but the lyrics took on a different meaning after the US entered the Second World War and its soldiers longed for home.
The delicate nature of the song is strangely absent in Curve's seasonal production of White Christmas, a show first created as recently as 2000 with a book by David Ives and Paul Blake. For my liking it's sung a little too fast as well but that's a grumble in an otherwise colourful, happy-go-lucky night.
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye famously played soldiers Bob Wallace and Phil Davis in the film version. Curve favourite Danny Mac – he'll end up with a Leicester twang at this rate – and Dan Burton take on the roles this time around. If three Daniels in quick succession is too much, don't worry because that's as complicated as any of it gets.
Let's face it, the storyline is as thin as a Christmas party hat but is beefed up by a songbook from Berlin (17 of them are showcased including "Sisters", "I Love A Piano" and "How Deep Is The Ocean"), and this seasonal fare at Curve did just about enough to send us home happy on a bitterly cold night.
Ten years after the war in which they served together, Wallace and Davis are a headline double act enjoying the limelight and the perks of the trade – "I told you to work on the second chorus," Bob tells his pal, "not the second chorus girl".
They follow Betty and Judy, a pair of singing sisters (Emma Williams and Monique Young, both excellent) from Times Square nightlife to the mountains of Vermont. Alongside their romantic designs, the boys do what singers do in a crisis...put on a show – in this case for the benefit of their former General who has fallen on hard times as the owner of a ski lodge.
Talented director Nikolai Foster gets to flex his muscles with a 23-strong cast and a big enough budget to sign off the most wonderful costumes (Diego Pitarch) and another impressive set from Michael Taylor, guaranteed to be as good as anything you'll see outside of London this Christmas. Taylor's artistry combines apparently effortless shifts in time and space with the visually arresting (the Western Front, 1944 to the neon lights of a cabaret club to the cheesiness of a 1950s television show).
A word, too, for Louise Jones. Buried among the credits she is listed as dialect coach. We have all seen shows where American accents are required and you sit there wincing while at least one performer takes you on a vocal rollercoaster. Not this one. They got it right.
In fact, there is not a weak link in the cast. As Strictly Come Dancing finalist Danny Mac demonstrated in the recent UK tour of Sunset Boulevard, his singing is more than a match for his footwork. Co-star Burton is equally adept, utilising his expressive face to great effect in comic business, not least Bob and Phil's send-up of "Sisters". But it is the vocal power of Wendy Mae Brown as hotel receptionist Martha Watson – brilliant in "Let Me Sing" and I'm Happy" – that single-handedly lifts the energy towards the end of act one.
They're a canny lot at Curve and while the stage version can never match the movie for charm, it will please the accountants no end. In a Christmas season when shops report poor business and the high street suffers once again, we are reminded that the customer is king. Theatre is not click and collect. At least not yet it isn't and I, for one, will drink to that.