REVIEW: ‘White Christmas’ at the Buell is a blizzard of Berlin, tap-dancing and sentimentality — 3 of 5 stars

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For generations, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas was that anachronistic flick America turned on in the background while baking cookies or opening presents.

Most people pressed to detail the plot of this iconic two-hour singing Christmas card would have to guess. It’s two hours of pleasant songs among some low-key chatter.

About 20 years ago, out of the movie’s comfortable obscurity, Broadway producers breathed life into a stage-musical version. They took great care to preserve the original comic-bookish carol created to frame Bing Crosby singing Irving Berlin standards, Danny Kaye dancing, and Rosemary Clooney wearing something plunging.

Theatergoers in 2000 quickly noticed, however, that without those sentimental stars, the show had all the panache of a vaudeville review.

In 2018, White Christmas now adds the cloud of the #MeToo movement to its considerable baggage as it slides into Denver for a holiday run at the Buell Theater at the Denver Center for Performing Arts.

Among your foggy memories of quaintness, you may have forgotten the show dabbles in serial sexual harassment, conniving, deception, a drag show, stalking and a collection of just about every squinting stereotype painted on just about everyone in the country.

The razor-thin plot revolves around two entertainer war buddies who meet two sisters staring in an up-and-coming sister act. Through an impossible twist, they all end up on Christmas at a failing Vermont inn, coincidentally owned by the men’s retired beloved Army general. So they decide to put on a show to save it.

The show could easily be the stage sequel to McHale’s Navy, except for the singing, the dancing and the costumes.

And that’s what saves this risky Christmas behemoth. Almost 20 years after the Broadway version stumbled, this new touring Broadway version making its Denver debut lands fit and sure-footed at the Buell Theater.

The entire cast delivers an extravaganza of tap and soft-shoe, alluring numbers complete with endless eye-popping costumes. The gala is able to offset the show’s considerable soft underside for most of the audience. And for the rest, the “I Love a Piano” crooning and tapping pageant makes all the rest at least forgivable.

Even as a movie, White Christmas was much more a tribute to Berlin’s simple genius than it was to America’s most popular holiday.

Kelly Sheehan and Jeremy Benton — as Judy Haines and Phil Davis, played in the movie by Vera Allen and Danny Kaye — dominate the Piano number, even among a chorus of stellar dancers and singers.

Likewise, Sean Montgomery, who plays Bing Crosby’s Bob Wallace, and Kerry Conte, who plays Rosemary Clooney’s Betty Haynes, knock out number after number with tour-de-force precision.

Expert down-playbill actors like Karen Ziemba, who smashes it as Martha Watson, and Clif Bemis, as the recurring comic foil, keep the audience interested between the dance scenes.

Unlike the movie, there are no second takes for these complicated numbers, and no need for them. Every costume, ever scene, every song and number are post-production perfect.

And for desert, everyone in the audience is treated to a white spectacle for the Christmas-red finale.

For those whose sense of nostalgia can overpower anything, White Christmas is a fuzzy love-letter to America’s post-war bliss. For everyone else, the tap-dancing and Berlin hit parade is a pleasant stroll through an American musical museum that justifies some occasional cringing.

THREE OF FIVE STARS

 

White Christmas

At the Buell Theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Denver through Dec. 15

Tickets available only through the DCPA at DenverCenter.org.

Ticket prices vary. Family Four Packs for $149 available for some performances, and discounts available for some matinees.