| Stage |

Irving Berlin's White Christmas from TUTS: A By-the-Numbers Production

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The setup:

As its seasonal show, Theatre Under the Stars brings back to the Hobby Center its pale, out-of-focus adaptation of the 1954 Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie musical. With an entire score built from Irving Berlin standards, the film was the first ever released in VistaVision, Paramount's wide-screen answer to Fox's Cinemascope. The process, which used a larger negative, had incredible depth, clarity and definition. Once you saw Rosemary Clooney smolder through "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me," you knew what smolder meant. (The most exciting part of the evening was the pre-curtain call for a doctor from the balcony for a distressed audience member. After a delay, the show went on. I couldn't see anything from my seat, but if the person was removed, please let them know they missed nothing.)

The execution:

This adaptation takes all the fun out of the movie, and all of just about everything else, too. Though lavish in staging, it's all flat and never picks up steam. Two successful song-and-dance men find their old WW II general failing as an innkeeper in Vermont along with his concierge (Carol Swarbrick). To help him out, they stage a show in the old barn. There are romantic complications, of course, but you can't stay down low for long in a Berlin show, even one made up out of disparate parts that span the musical ages -- Berlin ragtime ("I Love a Piano"), Berlin from the '20s ("Blue Skies"), the '30s ("Let Yourself Go"), the '40s ("Happy Holidays" and "White Christmas") and the '50s ("Sisters").

The adaptation by David Ives and Paul Blake is rote and mechanical, which puts everyone on autopilot. The lack of heat's the same whether Bob and Bettie (John Scherer and Michelle DeJean) are falling in love or out of it, while the subplot with Phil and Judy (Matt Loehr and Danette Holden) is coarsened with two burlesque chorines (although their appearance as Oxydol boxes is rather nifty). Everything plays by the numbers, with scenes falling by the wayside in quick, cheap shots that don't build or pay off. Even the tap choreography by Mary Jane Houdina is undazzling. Only Loehr has that Broadway Baby glitter that's irrepressible, while DeJean with her distinctive voice is highlighted only once, in Clooney's above-mentioned torch number. True to showbiz tradition, the producers leave us wanting more.

The verdict:

The opening-night audience certainly liked it, though, giving the cast the requisite rousing standing ovation. Although this pastiche of a show never rises past mediocrity, there's plenty of Irving Berlin to raise one's spirits and get in the Christmas mood. And that's a good thing -- as is the show's truly squeal-inducing finale.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas drops its snowdrifts through December 18 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at www.tuts.com or call 713-558-8887.

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