There is a big dose of nostalgia awaiting you at the Paper Mill Playhouse with “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” a melody and dance-saturated musical based on two films: the black and white “Holiday Inn” (1942) and its glitzier Technicolor 1954 remake “White Christmas.” The former starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and the latter teamed Crosby with Danny Kaye. What is hard to fathom, let alone explain, is how this same show that played on Broadway during the 2008 and 2009 holiday seasons is 10 times better, fresher, and more entertaining now than it was on Broadway. As I did not see the 2009 version, I cannot attest to whether there were significant changes made from the previous year in a show I considered to be quite mediocre in the extreme.
What happened? It has the same book by David Ives and Paul Blake. The production team once again includes director Marc Bruni, choreographer Randy Skinner, set designer Anna Louizos, costume designer Carrie Robbins, and lighting designer Ken Billington, as well as having the two leading men and two of the major supporting players from the 2009 Broadway production. By magic it appears that this show has morphed into a totally grand entertainment, unless it is simply that Bruni has done a better job in pulling all the corn, cliches, and 1950s crinoline together than did the original director.
If the plot still creaks as it did in 1942 and more so in 1954, you should know that it involves two entertainers who served in the same regiment during World War II and now, with the help of a sister act, come to the rescue of their former, now retired, army General (Edward James Hyland), who is on the verge of losing his inn in Vermont. It then segues into the old c’mon-kids-lets-put-on-a-show-in-the-old-barn routine with the brilliantly talented ensemble perfecting complicated dance routines all the while lavish scenery is erected and stunning costumes are being designed. You know, just like in real life.
This production is given a decided boost by having Lorna Luft shake the rafters of the inn as its loveable loud-mouth concierge, Martha, the role she played in London in 2006. But there’s more than just Luft lifting the decibel level with “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” and other songs in which you can hear coming from her the unmistakable shades of her mother Judy Garland’s voice.
It was a good move to bring James Clow and Tony Yazbeck as the two principal song and dance men. Clow is excellent as Bob Wallace, the role originated by Crosby, and demonstrates he can croon oldies like “Blue Skies” and “Count Your Blessings” with the disarming charm.
Yazbeck is terrific as Bob’s partner, Phil Davis. A superb hoofer with an ingratiating personality, Yazbeck was one of the more recent Billy Flynns in the long-running “Chicago,” and terrific enough to earn an Outer Critics Circle nomination for his outstanding performance as Tulsa in the Patti LuPone revival of “Gypsy.” Yazbeck wows us over and over with his virtuosic Astaire-ish moves in “I Love a Piano,” an eight-minute tap number shared with the lovely and gifted Meredith Patterson, who plays his love interest, Judy Haynes.
Love waits a while before it grips hold of Judy’s sister, Betty (Jill Paice) and the resistant Bob, but when it does with a medley of “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” and “How Deep is the Ocean,” it is memorable. There are no complaints as they sing and dance together in a posh nightclub with the Manhattan skyline aglow in the background.
Yazbeck and Clow have really zeroed in on the kind of partnering and stylized bonding that will be instantly familiar to those who remember vaudeville, particularly in “Happy Holidays” and “Let Yourself Go,” that they perform with a joyous exuberance in a scene as guests on Ed Sullivan’s TV show.
Hyland is splendid as the retired General Henry Waverly. Andie Mechanic is absolutely adorable as Susan, his showbiz-smitten granddaughter who brings down the house singing a reprise of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” to comply with the traditional 11 o’clock number. It also brought down the obligatory blizzard, during which the snow not only fell on the performers, but also on the audience that needed very little encouragement by then to join the cast in singing “White Christmas.” This is what is known as perfect family entertainment.
“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” through Saturday, December 24, Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn. $25 to $96. 973-376-4343. Performances: Wednesday and Fridays at 7 p.m.; Thursday, Saturdays, and Sundays at 1:30 and 7 p.m.