“Just like the ones I used to know”
My last show before Christmas was a festive trip to the Lowry which maintained a long-running family tradition of being treated to a show by Aunty Jean just before the big day. This year saw us take in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
which has returned to the Lowry after a highly successful run a couple of years ago. I would have loved to have seen original stars Aled Jones and Adam Cooper return too, but this still made an engaging, if undemanding, frolic through the snow.
Based on the 1954 film starring Bing Crosby, it has one of those plots it is best not to think about too much. Its premise is quite a sweet one: two ex-servicemen form a musical double act and as they find themselves chasing romance with a pair of singing sisters, end up in the Vermont hotel that belongs to their former Commanding Officer and whose future is in doubt due to a lack of snow. The only way to save the day is to…you’ve guessed it, put on a show!
So the excuse is provided to put on big production numbers throughout the show and with songs like 'Blue Skies', 'Happy Holiday' and 'Sisters', it is worth it. David Morgan’s production has a slick quality about it which always looks top quality, especially with Randy Skinner’s choreography. The act 2 opener is as brilliant a piece of dance theatre as I’ve seen all year and is expertly delivered by a committed ensemble and led by Louise Bowden and Paul Robinson who are both charming as the second lead couple.
Their romance is actually more engaging than the main one. Steven Houghton dances excellently as leading man Bob Wallace and sings powerfully, though I would have preferred a little more subtlety in his voice. But there’s nothing he can do about Claire Sweeney as his partner Betty, whose movement across the stage felt laboured (even though she has little choreo to deliver) and whose voice never feels at ease with the material (even as she overeggs the diva posturing). The unlikeable showgirl persona she is working lacks any of the necessary charm to make us care about this central romance and so she was ultimately quite disappointing for me.
But there’s plenty else to enjoy: Ken Kercheval (who was in Dallas apparently) grizzles wonderfully as the retired general and speaks most movingly when addressing the soldiers under him, Wendi Peters explodes with charismatic verve as the hotel’s concierge Martha and frequently steals the scenes she is in – Sweeney could look to Peters’ delivery of 'Let Me Sing And I’m Happy' for a proper Broadway feel, and if Anna Louizos’ set can feel a little laboured in its constant blackouts for the scene changes, the range of locations she comes up with makes it worthwhile.
So lots of fun and perfect for that Christmas trip with the family, especially in its cheesy, but entirely appropriate, final moments. With my more critical gaze on and in a month that has seen some astounding musicals both in and out of London, this might only appear somewhere in the middle of the pack for me, but as a piece of pure light-hearted entertainment, it does exactly what it sets out to do and does it with panache and warmth.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £5
Booking until 5th January
Labels: Claire Sweeney, Ken Kercheval, Louise Bowden, Paul Robinson, Steven Houghton, Wendi Peters