In the weeks before Christmas, upon D.C. stages
Runs holiday fodder for folks of all ages.
There’s singing. And dancing. And pious “God bless.”
Some shows convey wonder. And others, a mess.
The experienced theatergoer comes to fear the dreadful sappiness and wretched cheer hijacking stages each December. Campy comedies can be as dreary as mandatory joy: Gleeful nastiness is no antidote to force-fed ho-ho-hos.
Mercifully, three recently opened shows dash away from the schlock and cynicism, the most surprising being “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” now filling the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. This jumbo package from Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars is unexpectedly cheering, even though it appears to have to have a lot going against it:
●It’s a Hollywood knockoff, a tiresomely overused formula for Broadway musicals.
●It stars no one you’ve ever heard of.
●Its half-trillion set changes are sluggishly dragged out behind a dropped curtain as the cast jabbers and sings. (The technical term for this is an “in-one” scene; you’ll have plenty of time to memorize that during the performance.)
Ah, but who wrote more easygoing and heartwarming American tunes than Berlin? His catalogue has been raided as this much-produced 2004 adaptation expands on the 1954 Bing Crosby-Rosemary Clooney picture, so on top of “White Christmas,” “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” and “Blue Skies” you also get “How Deep Is the Ocean” and a satisfyingly big tap number for “I Love a Piano.”
The staging for the buoyant “Snow” captures this production at its best. A railway car casually fills with people wearing woolen plaid coats and caps — it’s a Norman Rockwell crowd — and a delightful choral number improbably blooms. Very little is tinny or pushy, even in the script by Paul Blake and quipmeister David Ives (“The Liar,” “Venus in Fur”).
Randy Skinner’s choreography features too many bland spins and kicks, but the tap numbers have a pleasantly controlled energy. Best of all, second bananas David Elder and Mara Davi are nicely showcased in their Fred and Ginger bits. James Clow and Stefanie Morse are compelled to act like dull adults in the Crosby and Clooney roles (their tedious plot, true to the film, turns on one of those obnoxiously avoidable misunderstandings). That leaves the romantic figures played by Elder and Davi blissfully free to sing and dance, and flirting or hoofing, they’re adorable.
In a gruffer comic key, so are pals Marc Kudisch and Jeffry Denman as “The Holiday Guys,” a two-man cabaret that these Broadway vets have buffed for a couple years now. The act, at Signature Theatre through Sunday and then on to New York, is as agreeably loose and funny as an old TV variety special.
Titled “Happy Merry Hanu-mas,” the 90-minute show merrily coasts on odd couple shtick. Kudisch is Jewish; Denman was raised on Christmas. Kudisch chills out in his jammies; Denman sports a suit with a sweater. Kudisch, a three-time Tony nominee who has starred in several shows at Signature, is a born raconteur and cutup. Denman, who had Elder’s “White Christmas” role on Broadway two years ago, is a refined dancer who nimbly executes a long tap routine on the tight stage of Signature’s 112-seat Ark theater.
The banter is bright, and the music brings clever twists to holiday chestnuts (some drawn from animated TV specials). The guys are backed by a jazzy piano-bass-drum combo, and the arrangements have a partylike spontaneity. Kudisch plays guitar, Denman strums a ukulele and a couple of instrumental surprises are unveiled; that the spirit flickers with seriousness now and then only makes this performance the more appealing.
Back to basics: that’s the mantra of Paul Morella’s ultra-Dickensian “A Christmas Carol,” performed solo, as the author himself used to do it. Morella, dressed as a Victorian gentleman, greets the audience at the door of the Olney Theatre Center’s intimate lab space, where he plays all the parts and sticks to Dickens’s book. The goal is to bring you close to the real deal — Scrooge, Cratchit, Fezziwig, the ghosts and Tiny Tim, each as Dickens described them.
Morella’s understated characterizations are ham-free, and the spartan production effectively creates spooky moods. Shafts of light cast stark shadows across Morella’s face; sound effects conjure crowds and dances. The reverent approach is novel, and its simplicity is a gift.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by David Ives and Paul Blake, based on the film written by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. Directed by Norb Joerder. About 21 / 2 hours. Through Jan. 6 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org
created by Jeffry Denman and Marc Kudisch. About 90 minutes. Through Sunday at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit signature-theatre.org
adapted and performed by Paul Morella. About two hours. Through Dec. 30 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org