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Theater review: "White Christmas" at RBTL 

It's been an unseasonably warm December in Rochester, and at this point there's a very small chance of snow for Christmas. In other words, it's a welcome time for Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" to open at the Auditorium Theatre for a pre-holiday run.

The musical was adapted for the stage in 2004, exactly 50 years after the classic 1954 film starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney premiered. The plot follows song and dance duo Wallace and Davis, who served in the war together and became variety show stars in the decade following. They meet and fall in love with a sister act, the Haynes Sisters, and follow them to Vermont for the holidays, where they all decide to mount a fundraising production to help a struggling inn -- and an old friend.

Tuesday's opening night crowd at the Auditorium Theatre was filled with folks who recall the 1944-1954 timeline of the film, from World War II holiday seasons spent abroad to the 1950's glory days of Ed Sullivan and television variety shows. Murmurs of "I remember that" and soft sing-alongs echoed through the audience during the two-and-a-half hour run.

But like any adaptation, there are plenty of things no one remembered as well -- a few songs and scenes weren't part of the original film. The beloved songs like "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing," "Sisters," "Snow" remain, and then there are some added numbers -- " I Love a Piano" is the most odd -- that serve as obvious stallers and fillers during what must be demanding scene and costume changes.

In particular, the expansion of the character Martha Watson (the busybody inn receptionist, played by Pamela Myers) as a former showgirl seemed unnecessary and detracted from the sweet scenes between Betty Haynes (played by elegant alto Kerry Conte) and Bob Wallace (Sean Montgomery, who plays Bing Crosby's character with finesse). The chemistry between the two, though it was there, wasn't given adequate time to bloom onstage (whereas the movie version provides Crosby and Clooney with a fireplace, warm milk, and sandwiches to go along with Crosby's song about counting sheep and blessings). The character of Martha is not only unnecessary, but a little grating on the ears each time the character sings or raises her voice. Of course, it's meant to be humorous and it is (at least at first).

Jeremy Benton plays the character of Phil Davis admirably -- he channels the comedy and physicality of a Danny Kaye role while also managing his own spin on the role. Opposite him is Judy Haynes (Kelly Sheehan), who is not the strongest singer onstage, but manages to keep up with Benton's dance moves during "The Best Things" and "I Love a Piano."

The only essential piece missing from "White Christmas" is the title song itself. Not once is the song performed during the show in the crooner style (and a crooning Montgomery would have been delightful to hear). Instead, it's presented in a sort of marching band style, complete with snare drum and increased tempo.

Some of the charm lost by the lack of crooning in the show is restored through the marvelous set design of Anna Louizes and costumes by Carrie Robbins (who made the cast members look as though they'd just walked off the set of "Mad Men"). It's also worth noting that the director and choreographer were one and the same for this production. That's an impressive feat for any show, but especially for one as tap dance-intensive as "White Christmas."

In many ways, "White Christmas" hearkens back to a simpler time, but it remains a classic because it has all the elements we still long for: holiday nostalgia, the spirit of giving, falling in love -- and of course, snow just in time for Christmas.

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