White Christmas, currently running at the Sony Centre and based on the 1954 Irving Berlin musical film, opens with a life-size rag doll named Busty Larue being tossed around a World War II barracks by singing soldiers intent upon relieving the daily horror of the trenches. Why not toss each other around I say, like so many good horny soldiers did, and continue to do? And if Busty Larue’s finely tuned miso-gynist opening act is not enough family entertainment for one night, soon after we are treated to the presence of a flamboyant stereotype who prances across the stage shamelessly and, as they say, every time he opens his mouth a purse falls out.
On a more personal note, Toronto poofter/performer Keith Cole jokingly complimented me after the show on my supposed portrayal of the flaming stage manager character. Well, I adore being made fun of, but for the love of Christ (our fey saviour) give me and my campy counterparts a real part in the story and at least one solo number. Unlike the skillfully portrayed role of Stanley Tucci’s layered, mincing poofter in The Devil Wears Prada, the character of the stage manager in White Christmas is an insulting example of an offensive stock character who is underdeveloped to the point of sheer narrative stupidity. Get off the stage, bitch (aka the director)! But as they say, gotta sing, gotta dance — and the dancing and singing in this show is fabulous.
The male leads — played by beloved closet icon Danny Kaye and smouldering mild macho man about town Bing Crosby in the film — are beautifully rendered by Graham Rowat and Tony Vazbeck. Kate Baldwin in the Rosemary Clooney part and Shannon O’Bryan in the Vera-Ellen role are powerful paramours for their musical matches. However a favourite gay number, “Sisters,” disappoints when it is reprised by the men without the high camp of the Crosby/Kaye rendition from the film. Kate Hennig is brilliant and caustic as Martha Watson, the innkeeper’s concierge, and stops the show with “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”
The press kit, boasting a 50 percent Canadian cast, reminds us that 1953 was a “kinder gentler time.” As if! This show is North American dream/war propaganda at its most decorative.
Sets by Anna Louizos and costumes by Carrie Robbins are superb and dance numbers by Bruce Pomahac divine. And when a chorus of sweet male voices belts out “We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go,” one longs for a long walk through a short cruising park.
Just up the street Dirty Dancing, with $17.3 million in advance sales, careens across the boards with admirable panache and energy. I couldn’t take my “Don’t Put Baby in a Corner” black tank top with hot pink lettering off for a week after the opening. This show is overproduced to the point of sheer mind-numbing nostalgia. Jake Simons, in the Patrick Swayze role, is an adept hunky dancer whose talent for testosterone-induced acting is matched by the ingenuous femininity of Monica West’s Baby. Unfortunately her character’s simplistic political aspirations to save the world and her lacklustre infantilizing solo dance numbers do in fact put Baby in a very tight corner.
An interminable bridge that rises from the floor of the stage for her to rehearse on and the powerful lifts she aspires to at the hands of her class-struggling paramour are embarrassing, grandstanding dance theatre clichés. A very capable dancer, West is not given the opportunity to shine the way Baby should. Similar to the stage manager in White Christmas, her role is a lame caricature. But the “dirty” songs and the hot bods are crotch warming while the huge phallo-photographic backlit sets are stupendous.
Both White Christmas and Dirty Dancing provide Toronto holiday audiences with a nostalgic tour de force that is guaranteed to have thousands of us squirming and sobbing in our seats for many weeks to come.