For many years, the Denver Center Theatre Company presented A Christmas Carol every holiday season, but this year, artistic director Kent Thompson has replaced it with a big song-and-dance-laden musical: White Christmas. Both shows are sentimental, feel-good fare; both feature protagonists who learn to renounce their own cynicism and hard-heartedness in favor of generosity. The Dickens goes a good bit deeper, of course: Beneath its period costumes, carols, visions of sugar plums and — in the earlier, Donovan Marley version — gorgeous skating and party sequences, the Center's Carol carried a real message about the obligations of those who have plenty toward those who have nothing. I remember with pleasure Randy Moore's brilliant evocation of Scrooge's transformation, the erstwhile miser's glee as he awoke to the realization that he had survived his guilt- and ghost-ridden night and still had time to change his life.
White Christmas has its origins in Irving Berlin's patriotic music, post-World War II euphoria and a cultural-artistic worldview that saw all military officers as bluff, benign father figures, and postulated that most of life's problems could be fixed by putting on a show in the barn. Despite Berlin's wonderful songs and stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Vera Allen and Rosemary Clooney, the 1954 movie is almost unwatchable today. The stage show is based on the film, with a script by Paul Blake of the St. Louis Municipal Opera and, surprisingly, David Ives, author of the verbally dexterous, hyper-clever set of one-acts called All in the Timing (recently presented here by Modern Muse). Although it's a bit tighter, the plot remains silly and insubstantial: A couple of cynical song-and-dance guys fall in love with a pair of singing sisters; misunderstandings ensue and get resolved; everyone comes together at the end to help the men's beloved onetime Army commander, who's trying without success to keep a Vermont inn solvent, despite an unseasonal shortage of snow. The dialogue is pure 1950s corn, and the era is deftly re-created in sets, costumes and acting styles — though never in a reflective, ironic way that would make it interesting.
I found myself fidgeting through much of the first act, noting the glitzy, professional slickness of the production, trying to will myself into the requisite, wonder-filled Christmas mood, but still checking my watch now and then. During the falling-in-love dance sequence between Phil and Judy, I admired Kate Marilley's graceful arms and endlessly long legs, as well as Benjie Randall's expressiveness and dexterity, without feeling any particular empathy for them. Long ago, in those innocent times when we were still speaking to each other, my sister and I used to sing Irving Berlin's "Sisters" at the tops of our voices while washing the dishes, flicking the dish towel at each other, giggling our way through "God help the mister/ Who comes between me and my sister/And God help the sister/Who comes between me and my man." So I expected a little hit of nostalgia when the song came up. But though Marilley and Amy Bodnar, who plays Betty, have fine voices, the sequence felt too practiced and enamel-hard.
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 30, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Eventually, though, I began to warm to the show. The last number of the first act is "Blue Skies," and there isn't a more exuberant song in the universe. Hearing it sung by a throng of talented hoofers in gleaming white outfits and fedoras had me grinning and delighted. Act two began on an equal high with "I Love a Piano," another breathtaking number, beautifully choreographed by Patti Colombo, in which male and female tappers joined forces in a joyful and prolonged celebration of music and dance. Randy Moore provided some happily comic moments as the taciturn Ezekiel. And the warmth with which Andrew Samonsky and Bodnar sang their reprise of "How Deep Is the Ocean" sank into my soul. By the time Mike Hartman — in a moving performance as the General — thanked everyone for saving his inn, and for their tribute to his years of military service, and Samonsky invited us to join him in a rendition of "White Christmas," my eyes started to mist.
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But I still missed Marley's A Christmas Carol like the dickens.