Reviews

White Christmas at the Crucible Theatre review – a merry and bright revival

Paul Foster’s new staging runs until 13 January

Grace Mouat and Natasha Mould in a scene from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at the Crucible Theatre
Grace Mouat and Natasha Mould in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, © Johan Persson

Anyone in any doubt of the dispensability of the book writer on a great American musical should stroll along to the Crucible where White Christmas is playing to sell-outs and standing ovations – or, for that matter, watch the original film where the book was bad enough to make Fred Astaire quit the project.

But what David Ives and Paul Blake’s tidying up for a 2000 run in St Louis does is to open the door on a constant procession of great Irving Berlin songs (the splendid “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” almost the only import from other shows), linked to individual and chorus dancing, opportunities for lavish setting and costuming and some inspired clowning.

We begin in the Army in 1944, General Waverly inspiring his men before being invalided home, then it’s ten years on and Bob Wallace and Phil Davis have moved on from the army to become stage stars. They meet up with the Haynes Sisters, Betty and Judy; Phil, ever the matchmaker, tries to push Bob into a relationship with Betty and from there on in, the story takes flight, touching reality only occasionally. Phil hi-jacks Bob onto a train to Vermont where the sisters are performing; General Waverly is running the ski lodge where they’re booked which is losing money hand over fist (no snow!); in the end (after Betty attempts a breakout to New York), Bob and Phil’s new show opens there in the presence of the men of the General’s old regiment.

Ives and Blake’s achievement is turning a Crosby vehicle into a dance show. Production numbers pile on each other, each building up to exciting/witty/inventive dance routines. The train to Vermont splits, circles and comes round again as Bob realises (too late) its destination; “Blue Skies” (living proof that Berlin got it wrong when he claimed “White Christmas” was his best song) explodes into full-blown Bob Fosse: the second-act opener, “I Love a Piano”, is a marathon of tapping from Phil, Judy and virtually everyone else. And so many songs find their place in the show: I had never realised what a lovely song “Count your Blessings” is until I heard it sung by Bob to Waverly’s granddaughter Susan.

George Blagden, Grace Mouat, Stuart Neal and Natasha Mould in a scene from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at the Crucible Theatre
George Blagden, Grace Mouat, Stuart Neal and Natasha Mould in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, © Johan Persson

Alistair David’s choreography, needless to say, works wonders with the 20-odd cast, a good half of them in the ensemble, dancing up a storm and having fun with the odd part. Paul Foster’s direction keeps a tight grip on the myriad of comings and goings on Janet Bird’s infinitely versatile set. Alex Parker’s band comes sporadically into view above the action, but is a vital presence throughout.

And what of the actors? George Blagden (Bob) and Stuart Neal (Phil) are song and dance men through and through, Neal reminding me at times of the great Donald O’Connor who nearly played the Danny Kaye role. Grace Mouat and Natasha Mould are perfect in the sister roles – and that’s another song that comes up smelling of roses – “Sisters”. Ewen Cummins brings dignity to General Waverly, together with the odd crazy moment in pursuit of bills, and Sandra Marvin is huge fun as Martha, his Number Two – and she can belt out a number with the best of them. Most remarkable of all is Ava Rothwell, granddaughter Susan, mischievous and very serious at the same time, seizing her moment for her big song. Ten-year-olds are coming up remarkably talented these days and I’m sure that in their turn Renee Elliot-Latif and Bonnie Hill will shine during the run until 13 January.