White Christmas – Review – Sheffield Crucible
By Helen Johnston, December 2023
It’s testament to the power of Irving Berlin’s song writing talent that the ballad he wrote in 1942 has become such a Christmas staple that most of us can sing along to the first few lines, or at least hum them.
Written for the musical Holiday Inn, ‘White Christmas’ was made a hit by Bing Crosby, whose version has sold over 50 million copies worldwide. Add on cover versions and the song’s popularity reaches more than 100 million.
It has become synonymous with the film White Christmas – released in 1954 starring Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney – and featured the kind of big Hollywood musical numbers that brought glamour to the silver screen.
This stage version may not have the same budget, but it still captures all that charm and elegance, which is a credit to the cast who are working on a very simple set without the advantage of scenic backdrops.
Aficionados of the film will notice that the story differs in some respects, but it hardly matters because the plot was always secondary to the songs. It’s a typically warm Christmassy tale of old Army pals turned showbiz stars Bob (George Blagden) and Phil (Stuart Neal) getting their division back together to lift the spirits of their wartime commander General Waverley (Ewen Cummins). He is now running a failing inn in Vermont, which is lacking guests because the snow hasn’t arrived.
Along the way, Bob and Phil team up with singing sisters Betty (Grace Mouat) and Judy (Natasha Mould) and romance ensues, but not without the usual rom-com misunderstandings and mishaps.
Hotel concierge Martha has a much bigger role than in this version, which is a good thing otherwise we might have missed out on the singing talents of Sandra Marvin, whose soaring voice and comedic timing were spot on.
Waverley’s grand-daughter Susan (Ava Rothwell) is younger than in the film, and also gets a bigger part. Rothwell very nearly steals the show and shows remarkable self-assuredness, even when on the stage alone.
Mouat gets the chance to shine in her solo number ‘Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me’, while Mould and Neal are astonishing all-rounders, as a tap dancing routine with the ensemble proves. I’ve always loved the sound of tap shoes and quite frankly we need more of this. Even Strictly doesn’t do tap.
Choreographer Alistair David has done great work in putting together all the dance routines and the train ride scene is particularly well executed, with cast and crew moving seamlessly around a revolving stage while singing Snow.
The final scene when everyone sings ‘White Christmas’ (including the audience), features twirling dancers in huge ball gowns and yes, a snow shower. I was wondering why they hadn’t included a Christmas tree as well when, lo and behold, one pops up mid-stage.
It was the song we’d all been waiting for and was an uplifting and fitting finale. The cast received a standing ovation and there was rapturous applause for the orchestra managed by David Gallagher. What a joy it must be for them to bring life to the music of Berlin, who arrived in New York as a Russian refugee and went on to contribute so much to the American Songbook.
I, for one, am now dreaming of a white Christmas. Or any colour other than rainy grey please.
‘White Christmas’ is at Sheffield Crucible until January 13
images: Johan Persson