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White Christmas

Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by David Ives and Paul Blake, based on the Paramount Pictures film
Theatre Royal Plymouth production
Sunderland Empire
(2010)

White Christmas the song was written in 1940 for the film Holiday Inn, first screened in 1942; White Christmas the musical was a 1954 film; White Christmas the stage show (properly entitled Irving Berlin's White Christmas the Musical) was first staged in San Francisco in 2004.

That's that cleared up! Well, I was confused and I think I may well have confused a fellow (much younger) critic last night when I talked of the film being in black and white. It wasn't. That was Holiday Inn, and the image in my mind of Bing Crosby singing the title song in black and white came from that film, not from the 1954 one.

But that's the only confusion. What is in no doubt is that this production (hereinafter referred to as White Christmas to save typing) is a definite hit with the Sunderland audience. Yes, it's lightweight and the plot doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Yes, the characterisation is paper thin. Yes, it's dated. But it's got songs by Irving Berlin, and some of his best ones too: White Christmas (of course), Happy Holiday, Sisters, Blue Skies, How Deep Is the Ocean and I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.

It recreates the fifties musical exactly, especially in the dance routines (choreography by Randy Skinner) and the costumes and set capture the period very effectively. Indeed Anna Louizos' set design deserves special mention, not just for its visual impact but also for the smoothness and speed of the often major changes.

And there is also no doubt that this is a very talented company and a true ensemble. Tom Chambers (Bob Wallace, the Crosby part), Adam Cooper (Phil Davis, played in the film by Danny Kaye), Ken Kercheval (the General), Rachel Stanley and Louis Bowen (the Haynes sisters) and Kerry Washington (Martha Watson) are the leads but there is strength and talent in depth in the whole company and all deserve an equal share of the limelight. I must, however, make special mention of young Millie Thornton from Sunderland making her theatre debut as Susan Waverly. She shares the role with two other youngsters, Hannah Elliott and Anna Mitchell, and on last night's showing has a great career ahead of her. In her solo spot, Let Me Sing and I'm Happy, she had all the power and personality of Ethel Merman. Wow!

White Christmas is a feel-good show, pure undemanding entertainment, which is well performed and thoroughly enjoyable. If I have one niggle, it's that the art of the crooner seems to have been lost. Wisely the director has the audience join in the full performance of the title song at the end - they probably would anyway! - so comparisons with Crosby aren't made, but How Deep Is the Ocean needs the same style and doesn't get it and loses impact.

A minor niggle, though, and nowhere near enough to marr the evening's entertainment. Quite a number of theatres do offer a children's alternative to panto at Christmas but in the North East only the Sunderland Empire has an adult alternative. It should do good business: it certainly deserves to!

"White Christmas" runs until 1st January, 2011

Peter Lathan