“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” which opened Saturday at the Ordway, is like that big, bright package under the tree. It looks so inviting and promising. Then you rip into it and find a $10 coffee gift card taped to a brick. Someone is having a laugh.
Sparkling choreography and production numbers dolled up in brilliant costumes on a well-decked stage reward some of your anticipation, but at the bottom of it all is a middling play that feels quite small.
James Rocco is directing and choreographing this Ordway production. It is a gift to the theater community, providing work for a big cast and crew, and the Ordway deserves enthusiastic applause for keeping folks busy.
“White Christmas” was a dopey 1954 film about a song-and-dance duo (played here by Dieter Bierbrauer and Brian Sostek) who get tangled up with a sister act (Ann Michels and Jenny Piersol) and end up at a Vermont ski lodge. There, they bump into their World War II commanding officer (James Michael Detmar), who is a better general than businessman. They put on a show for the old man.
David Ives and Paul Blake adapted the film for this musical but when you churn thin gruel, you generally get tedious thin gruel.
So Rocco keeps them dancing like “42nd Street” and singing like it’s an Irving Berlin festival — which this musical is. From the title song to “Happy Holiday” and veering into “Blue Skies,” “I Love a Piano,” “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and the irresistible “Sisters,” the music under Jeff Rizzo’s direction keeps the show afloat. Rocco’s choreography uses a wide palette in pleasing lines and stage pictures. Carrie Robbins’ dazzling costume colors and Pamila Gray’s lighting schemes keep the candy looking good.
Actors whose performances take up a lot of space do best in this environment. Thus, Michels succeeds as Betty Haynes, a character who flashes great smiles, sings brassy and smoky songs and dares to show some heart.
Thomasina Petrus fills the room with her voice and personality in “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” Natalie Tran, who wins “best child in show,” brings the same hammy joy to her reprise of that number.
Some other downcast performers make themselves known. Caroline Innerbichler and Larissa Gritti are funny chorines, while Gary Briggle pulls mugs in a few small parts.
Piersol is the less interesting Haynes sister, Judy, but she makes herself known onstage as a dancer — working well with Sostek, who plays the role originated by Danny Kaye in the film. Bierbrauer is the Bing Crosby character, who croons his way through the show.
And here is where you are staring at that Starbucks card, still believing there must be more. Sostek and Bierbrauer too often evaporate in the hot lights. Their characters were born bland, so audiences could see through them to Crosby and Kaye. Sostek and Bierbrauer, talented dancers and singers, can’t make the hokum work.
And so, like 8 inches of snow on a December weekend, “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” is a beautiful thing to gaze at. Keep telling yourself that as you trudge back to the car.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune journalist and critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.