Our Pledge To You

‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas’ a spirit-raising dance-athon

Kelly Sheehan (from left), Jeremy Benton, Sean Montgomery and Kerry Conte in the national tour of "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. | Jeremy Daniel

At the very same moment that Drury Lane Theatre has given us a brilliantly modernized production of  “42nd Street,” the national touring company of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” has arrived at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in a first-class production that remains utterly true to its roots — the 1954 Paramount Pictures hit. And in its wonderfully old-fashioned way — with a cornucopia of timeless Berlin standards, fabulous tap and ballroom-style dance sequences, and a story that serves as a touching reminder of what this country felt like when it was truly “great,” it manages to win hearts and minds in the most beguiling way.

Highly recommended
When: Through Dec. 3
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Tickets: $18 – $100
Info: www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

Adapted for the stage by David Ives and Paul Blake (and produced in regional theaters since 2000, with a limited engagement on Broadway in 2008, and national tours in this country, the U.K. and beyond), “White Christmas” is at once a sassy romantic comedy and a patriotic homage to the post-World War II era. It also celebrates the powerful bonding spirit that can (ironically enough) be found in both the military and the world of show biz.

It all begins on Christmas eve of 1944, when two soldiers who are popular song-and-dance men in civilian life, entertain the troops on the Western Front. The playfully womanizing Phil Davis (Jeremy Benton), and his cynical buddy, Bob Wallace (Sean Montgomery), are under the command of Henry Waverly (Conrad John Schuck), a formidable four-star general who, despite his curmudgeonly facade, commands immense respect.

Fast forward a decade to “peace time,” with Phil and Bob now featured performers on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and in search of a female duo to incorporate into their act. An old army buddy suggests they take a look at a club act being performed by the Haynes sisters — Betty (Kerry Conte) and Judy (Kelly Sheehan) — and the fix is in. The exuberant Phil and Judy hit it off from the start, and prove, as the song title says, that “The Best Things Happen While Your Dancing,” with Sheehan and Benton making a sublime pair. The similarly jaded and defensive Bob and Betty are like oil and water, although of course they are destined for each other.

The cast of the national touring company of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. | Jeremy Daniel

When it comes time for them all to head off on separate holiday gigs, Phil mischievously switches tickets for his and Bob’s plans to head to Miami and instead puts them all on the same train to Vermont, where the Haynes sisters are to perform at an inn in ski country. The guys arrive to discover that the inn is owned by Waverly, whose assistant (and comically surrogate “wife”) Martha Watson (Karen Ziemba), has been protecting his pride by hiding the operation’s precarious finances — a situation made even worse by the fact that there has been no snow this year and tourists are canceling their reservations.

Of course in true show biz spirit, Phil and Bob decide to save the place by putting on a big show and alerting all the veterans in their old division to make the trip to Vermont to see it. As you might expect, there are complications and misunderstandings galore, but a happy ending is a sure thing. So is a dreamily snowy white Christmas, complete with a slew of red and white Christmas sweaters (and other vintage ’50s style costumes) by Carrie Robbins.

The cast here could not be more ideal, with the four leads — backed by a superb ensemble featuring notably leggy female dancers — tapping up a storm in “Blue Skies” (a terrific first act closer), and Phil and Judy creating a percussive storm in the second act opener, “I Love a Piano.” As Martha, Broadway veteran Ziemba knocks it out of the park with her Ethel Merman-esque rendering of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” and Schuck, also a Broadway veteran, is just gruff and lovable enough to make you understand his troops’ loyalty. His precocious granddaughter, Susan (Maykayla Joy Connolly), belts out a remarkable reprise of Martha’s number.

This is a lavish, no-expenses-spared production, with high energy direction and tour de force choreography by Randy Skinner. But above all it is driven by a dazzling song list (“Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” “Happy Holiday,” “Sisters,” “How Deep Is the Ocean” and more) and is a reminder that Irving Berlin, who gave this country its most optimistic voice, was the child of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family that landed on these shores in 1893.

Sean Montgomery and the ensemble in “Blue Skies,” one of several rousing numbers in “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.” | Jeremy Daniel