White Christmas

The Lowry, Manchester, 28 November 2009


Review by Emma Shane

© December 2009


How to describe the experience of this magical performance. I just don’t know. I’m very fond of Irving Berlin tunes. And in recent months I seem to have been hearing quite a lot of them, what with seeing Call Me Madam, Annie Get Your Gun and now this. Strangely there is another element common to all three. The legendary Broadway singer-actress whom Berlin himself referred to as “The Mighty Merman”. Whereas the first two were originally stage musicals which were later made into films, White Christmas started off as a film (two films in fact, the first being Holiday Inn), before being adapted for the stage.


This stage show opens with a 1944 setting, where army pals Bob and Phil (played by Aled Jones and Adam Cooper respectively), with Shedrake (Mark Dickenson) are performing Happy Holidays. Adam Cooper one should expect a good performance from, after all not only is he a former Royal Ballet dancer, he also trained at Arts Educational (before he even went to the “Wells” school). The surprise of the number is Aled Jones, for actually managing to keep up with him, in a manner not dissimilar to Frank Sinatra in Anchors Away. This opening number also contains one of those things you can only really do with a musical number (a technique much exploited by composer-lyricists such as Jason Carr and Stephen Sondheim), use the number to cover a time span between verses. In this case an interruption from their General, General Henry Waverley, prompting someone to remark on where they might all be ten years from now. A quick drawing and opening of the curtains, a scene change, and it is ten years on, 1954, with Bob and Phil, now wearing suits, continuing the number, now as their act on The Ed Sullivan Show. David Lucas plays the announcer. Moving on it is time for Aled Jones sing a solo, of the title song White Christmas. Which needless to say does suit him rather well. After all this is a gentleman associated with Christmas songs for most of the past quarter of a century.

The Lowry stage is a fairly large one, and this is put to good use with some split scenes, the first of these depicts two dressing rooms . To the audience’s left is Bob and Phil’s dressing room on The Ed Sullivan Show, to our right is Betty And Judy’s dressing room at a dive called Jimmy’s. The scene opens with Phil urging Bob to Let Yourself Go. Both men and the ensemble perform the number perfectly well. However, I have one problem with the number. Watching it, I could never quite erase the memory of listing to an excerpt of that song as it appears on The Hot Shoe Shuffle UK Touring cast album; where a certain musical theatre actress managed with a small snippet to make that song very much her own. It seems that Phil is always attempting to pair Bob off with some female, but for Bob this never works. Is that meant to imply anything else about Bob, but it turns out there is no hidden meaning here, Bob has simply never met the right girl. Switching to the other side of the stage, we have a dialogue between Betty and Judy Haynes, played by Rachel Stanley and Suzanne Shaw respectively. It seems that Judy is quite determined to get their sister act ahead, she does not want to go on playing dives for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile Betty, her shyer sister, seems more resigned to doing so. Judy also seems quite determined to find her sister a boyfriend. Interestingly Suzanne Shaw is the one who makes an impression here. We think of her as a pop star, but in fact she can act perfectly well. Rachel Stanley makes less of an impression, though she can sing, but her character is meant to be rather awkward. We come to a very interesting use of the split stage, and a sort of twin soliloquy, not something I had thought of Irving Berlin as writing (though he did write three very fine counterpoint songs, two for Merman). Here we don’t have a counterpoint, but we do have Love And The Weather, handled by Aled and Rachel as if it were a twin soliloquy. Both sing sweetly, and it’s a nice song, though perhaps a little long.

Looking for a sister act, for their up coming show, Phil and Bob arrive at Jimmy’s Back Room, where Betty and Judy are performing their number, Sisters. This is something of an Irving Berlin standard. Like all classics it has had many interpretations, some good, and some terrible. Rachel and Suzanne’s is one of the better versions. They do it very much as two showgirls singing a song in an act. It’s very showy, and accomplished, although it seemed slightly lacking in convincing closeness, I was not entirely convinced that these two were best friends, let alone sisters. I saw a rather more convincing, and unforgettably brilliant, rendition of this song, at Lauderdale House, back in the autumn of 2007, where it was sung by two actresses who genuinely happened to be ‘best friends’. Nevertheless it is probably only by comparison with that version, that I’m critical of Rachel and Suzanne’s efforts, there was nothing in the least wrong with their performance, and in a way it fitted in very well into the context of the show in which they were performing it, after all they are doing it as a show within a show number.

Introductions over, Phil and Judy, who seem to click instantly, get up and dance The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing. Both sing reasonably, but it is their dancing one really notices. Adam Cooper has all the power and grace one might expect from a great classical dancer, whatever genre he is actually dancing in. The surprise of the number is Suzanne Shaw, who does a splendid job of partnering him, she’s such a professional, and you can just tell she’s clearly well trained in dancing.

The pair are also determined to get Bob and Betty together. This results is Phil contriving to get him and Bob on the train to Vermont, with Judy and Betty, instead of wherever the two buddies were meant to be going. By now I’m beginning to notice there is one thing missing from the show. We’re just coming into the fourth scene, and there is still one of the show’s six principals who hasn’t had a look in at all, and she doesn’t get into this fourth scene either. Gosh it makes me think of the first time I saw Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy, and spent a not insignificant amount of the film wondering when certain characters might actually put in an appearance. The one saving grace for this train scene, is the presence of a musical number whose tune was dropped from Call Me Madam, namely Snow (originally, with a different lyric, titled Free). It’s great to actually get to hear this tune, of course it’s a decent tune, not least because Irving Berlin originally wrote it to be heard loud and clear. The entire ensemble, and the four principals perform this number, first in the train, and eventually in front of the drapes, while the set is being changed. And when the drapes go up, not only are we now at The Front Desk of the Columbia Inn, Vermont. behind the desk, at long last, we have the missing member of the cast, very much on stage, full of presence, dominating the scene, Louise Plowright. her character Martha Watson, is the inn’s “concierge”, at least that’s what the owner of the inn, General Henry Waverly calls her, as she says “Well it’s better than Captain”. Watching Louise in full command of the stage, there is a strong sense of deja vu. After all when was the last time she played the manageress of a hotel or some such? Remember Donna Sheridan running the taverna, in Mamma Mia? In this scene, at least, Louise seems to have worked into Martha elements of both her definitive dynamos. The commanding presence of Donna (whom she played for four years) and the witty wisecracks of Tanya (whom she originated). When the scene opened, with Martha barking at the passengers that she couldn’t do anything about the unusually warm weather (and lack of snow), there was a strong sense of Donna. But when she exited at the end of the scene, with a wittily delivered line (was that the one about the General having once ordered breakfast for oh six hundred hours?), there was an element of Tanya in there. Besides Martha Watson, the scene also introduces another new character, Susan Waverly, The General’s granddaughter, played tonight by Anna Bray, a precocious miss who “only came for the snow”, and seems to be quite intent on her homework. This striking scene also includes a musical number. Martha leads Bob and Phil with What Can You Do With A General. Its a great song, a very poignant one. Now Louise Plowright happens to have a striking gift for handling torchy numbers. Louise is one of those performers who, if she believes in the song will do her best to sell it, and give it so much feeling. Louise is adept at handling moving numbers with feeling. Remember how well she sang Slipping Through My Fingers in Mamma Mia? But What Can You Do With A General is both movingly poignant and to an extent comical. Somehow Louise in particular strikes the right balance with this number. She exits before the scene ends, leaving Adam and Aled to finish the scene, a little tamely. Louise did rather light the stage up.

However, if Louise Plowright had brought a certain energy and sparkle to Scene Five, it is nothing compared to the next scene, set in the barn out the back, which is truly dazzling. It opens, and what an opening, with Louise Plowright (who has now changed her frock from patterned yellow to patterned red), striding on stage, armed with a megaphone, belting (without the orchestra) a burst of a legendary number, not actually listed in the programme, There’s No Business Like Showbusiness, very much in the style of Ethel Merman. Amazingly she’s actually convincing. Wow! I didn’t know she could do that! Mostly, with two notable exceptions, when I’ve heard people attempting to imitate The Mighty Merman it doesn’t work, but this little burst does, with so many musical theatre actresses, even to attempt a short piece in the style of Ethel Merman doesn’t quite hit the mark. Ann Emery couldn’t do it (though she tried once on a BBC Christmas Special in 1984). But this is just a starter. The scene progresses with Martha, and Susan presently joined by Bob, Phil, and someone possibly Jimmy (referred to for no apparent reason as “Scooter”) removing the dustsheets covering a piano. The rest of the company quickly join them, and soon some kind of rehearsal is in full swing. This also includes the two giggling girls Rita and Rhonda (played by Laura Scott and Joanna Goodwin) attempting to come on in some shockingly revealing Christmas tree costumes, this is supposed to be a family show. Meanwhile Martha clearly has her own reasons, besides trying to help The General make a success of the inn, for wanting the show-people around. She has already mentioned that she knows a great singer, who can also tap dance. Each time Phil rebuffs her with “later”, or  “tell her to send a photograph”. The look on Louise’s face speaks volumes. It is as though the actress has poured into the character a genuine sense of frustration, of what it must really be like for a performer to know they good, know they can do a great job, if only they could get a decent job. A singer-actress who knows full well she could be a great West End standard leading lady, rather than stuck in the muck of a bit-part in a bad soap-opera inspired musical in Leeds (does anyone remember that bloody rubbish?). Fortunately there really is no business like show business, and in this show Louise Plowright has the good luck to have the music, the spotlight, the people ... etc; And in the plot, the guys finally twig that Martha the hotel concierge is in fact an ex-Broadway belter of singer, who starred in six flops, so they give her a chance to sing. At which (like Jerry Allen in the film Alexander’s Ragtime Band) Louise, hits a long loud note, thereby demonstrating that she can hold a note for longer than J. P. Morgan Chase. Then she delivers a line which most singer-actresses just could not do believably, “Ethel Merman said I was loud”. This is genuinely believable. After all when Louise Plowright herself was a West End Leading Lady, shining like the sun at Prince Edward Theatre she had as one of her backing dynamos a singer-actress who ten years earlier, on the very same stage had established her own claim to be ‘The English Ethel Merman’. And belting Let Me Sing And I’m Happy, Louise Plowright promptly demonstrates, that,with her whirlwind drive, (like her ex Mamma Mia colleague) she sure doesn’t need to be told to “sing out ...”. In fact what she does with this song is totally extraordinary. She manages to deliver this song with hint of Ethel Merman’s legendary style less style, and yet at the same time be totally herself, and the character of Martha Watson all rolled into one. Much as I adore hearing first rate musical theatre belters. I am often none-too keen on singers attempting to sing their numbers in the style of Ethel Merman. For the simple reason that the majority of them just don’t do it well enough. Either they don’t have the requisite vocal power, or they slug the song around, or descend too far into grotesque parody, and loose sight of themselves. However in this performance Louise Plowright is as good as Gold, or for that matter Criswell. Indeed the biggest surprise tonight is discovering that she is one of the very few who can really pull this off. Not only can she sing brilliantly, wearing a top hat and carrying a cane she also dances, it’s very much reminiscent of Merman herself in the film Alexander’s Ragtime Band, only the dancing is somewhat better. After all Louise was in British touring production of The Hot Shoe Shuffle.

Anything was going to be a come down after Louise’s amazingly magnificent tour de force. Quite sensibly the next scene was completely different, for no big number could possibly have followed it. In a way it would have been a good place for an interval (many great musicals, especially those written for Merman, do end Act 1 with a showstopping big belt number: Anything Goes in Anything Goes, Ridin’ High in Red Hot And Blue, I Got Rhythm in Crazy For You, and, Old Maid in 110 In The Shade, amongst others). However plotwise it is no place for an interval. Scene Seven set in the front porch of the inn finds several people who can’t sleep, notably Bob, Betty, and Susan. The latter is worried about her grandfather, so Bob comforts her with Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep, and is in his turn comforted by Betty. Aled sings beautifully of course, and Rachel is by no means bad, but after Louise’s extraordinary performance in the previous scene it is hard to pay Aled and Rachel the attention they deserved.

Next we have a dialogue scene, and this is also a split stage scene. To the audience’s left Sheldrake’s office, where Sheldrake himself is on the telephone. To the audience’s right Martha’s Switchboard, with Martha, wearing glasses, and a telephone headset, seated at her switchboard, taking telephone messages. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen Louise Plowright play a role where she had to wear glasses in a scene. (Though she isn’t wearing them in the photograph in the programme). Sheldrake gives Martha a message for Bob. Unfortunately Martha misunderstands the message, and thinks Bob is underhandedly trying to buy out the hotel. “Bob has a company! Oh no” she exclaims to herself (in a voice that sounds very like her Poole pantomime villains, only this time she’s not in the least villainous), on hanging up the phone. Loyal to The General, it’s clear she has resolved to try and stop Bob getting his way. But can she?

By the final scene of the act, the audience had come back down to earth. The scene is full of energy, with the whole company involved. General Waverly having found a pile of unpaid invoices Martha had been hiding from him, is intent on getting an explanation. Martha, along with Susan, decides to run and hide. Only with The General chasing them, they run straight into an ensemble rehearsal of Blue Skies. This is one of those Irving Berlin classics which withstands continual reinvention, and totally bizarre performances: Alice Faye sang it in the film Alexander’s Ragtime Band with Ethel Merman of all people as her backing singer! Jim Henson’s Muppets had a bunch of prairie dogs sing it, and (thanks to ‘The English Muppet’) one of them managed to sound uncannily like Ethel Merman. More recently Kim Criswell made it her own on a solo album of Irving Berlin songs, where the number benefited from an innovative and very hurriedly written arrangement by those geniuses Jason Carr and Paul Bateman. Tonight’s show finds it given yet another reinterpretation, as a big ensemble number, the Act 1 finale in; with the men all in white suits (with fedora hats). The girls are all in a white version of the black costume Judy Garland first wore to sing Mr Monotony in the film Easter Parade (tuxedo and fedora). I can’t help wondering if the costume was meant to make the audience think of Garland. So we have the hilarious spectacle of the ensemble trying to perform Blue Skies, while Martha and Susan (played by Louise and Anna), keep rushing in and out, hotly pursued by The General (played by Roy), who is scattering papers all over the stage, as he goes. when at last he corners them, it is Louise who gets the last word, trying to give him some kind of explanation, as the act ends.

What an act! And what a truly amazing performer Louise Plowright is. Stunning stuff.


Act 2 opens with another classic number, often performed in a variety of guises, I Love A Piano. Perhaps its best known version was sung by Judy Garland in the film Easter Parade. However, for me the most endearing memory of it, is hearing it sung at an R.A.F. Association charity concert by notable West End pit orchestra veteran, Kate Young accompanying herself on the piano (she really brought the lyrics to life). Somehow turning it into a big overblown production number looses its charming feeling (and the lyrics don’t have so much meaning). However it is still a great number, and works perfectly satisfactorily (unlike Gerhswin’s I Got Rhythm which loses a lot of its impact from being overdone). Certainly Adam Cooper, and even more Suzanne Shaw do a fine job of leading the company in this number. In fact the surprise of the piece is Suzanne, for actually managing to keep up and partner Adam so well.

Rehearsals for the show within a show may be going well, but the love lives of the principals are not. At least not when Martha confidentially tells Betty what she thinks Bob is up to. Martha also delivers an invitation, someone has offered Betty a solo engagement to sing at The Regency Room in New York. Betty is very tempted to accept, it’s the kind of job she has always wanted. Besides which she is quite rightly appalled by what Martha tells her about Bob. After all she thought Bob was a decent person, who wouldn’t do anything underhand, she thought she knew him and could trust him. However, Betty was told in confidence, and being a decent person herself, won’t tell anyone, not even her sister, exactly what she was told. Nevertheless she does give some hints, and both girls are comforted by Martha, who in her Broadway days, dated a lot of horn players, unsuccessfully (Louise is good at playing women who’ve been around a bit, remember her dynamos in Mamma Mia were the thrice-married Tanya, and then Donna who after all had three boyfriends and dot dot dot...). Anyway the result of this conversation is a trio Falling Out Of Love Can Be Fun. This proves to be a very interesting number indeed. One I had not only never come across before, but which is also quite unlike any other Irving Berlin song I’ve ever heard. I would never have guessed it was one of Irving Berlin’s songs. I also found the song rather moving. Maybe it’s “just a show song”, but I think there’s a lot in there about needing to move on after a relationship break up, after all a break up, however sad, could perhaps be a new beginning, well one can but hope. That this song sells itself so well, is probably also helped by the performances of the three ladies, all so perfectly cast to sing it. If you are going to have mighty Louise Plowright in a trio, then it makes good sense to have her lead the trio, as she does here, and did for four years in Mamma Mia, and not bang her in a supporting role, with a lead whose performance skills are no match for hers (as happened, for example in All Banged Up in Bad Girls The Musical). In a supporting role in a trio she really is like a vampire without her fangs, as she has nothing to get her teeth into. Here thankfully she is heading the trio. Yes the other two get to carry a verse, or part of a verse, each of their own, and Louise is perfectly fine at supporting them in this situation, much like when she was Donna The Dynamo digging the Dancing Queen, she’s a very fair performer, well able to give someone else their rightful turn in the spotlight, but she is still very much the number’s leading lady.

Back in the barn, at a tech rehearsal, both girls are missing, so our two leading men, Phil and Bob have to stand in. This brings us to the first of four reprises in the show, and one of the less satisfactory reprises, because of it being sung by different characters to those who originally performed it quite well. Fortunately, its positioning within the plot suggest that it is not meant to be as good as in Act 1, and it is placed very much as a comical reprise of Sisters, now performed by Aled and Adam. While it is unconvincing, it’s not meant to be convincing, so that’s alright.

In New York, Miss Elizabeth Haynes, as Betty seems to prefer being known, is making her debut as a solo artiste. I was not exactly impressed by Rachel Stanley’s performance of Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me. There is nothing inherently wrong with her performance. The problem is when you have as sensational a singer-actress as Louise Plowright in the company, any other female singer is going to have a hard job competing, and putting herself across well; and though Rachel Stanley is a satisfactory performer, she doesn’t quite have that extra bit of zing that is needed here. Things do get more interesting when Aled joins in singing a counterpoint, How Deep Is The Ocean. He after all is well known for his singing talents. Even so, I still found it hard to adjust to hearing his version of this song. I’m used to hearing it sung by brassy belters (Ethel Merman recorded it, and Louise Gold has been known to make use of it in her cabaret act). Bob then goes on television, The Ed Sullivan Show, to appeal to the soldiers he served with ten years earlier to come and join together for Christmas in Vermont. We’ll Follow The Old Man. At which Rachel turns out her best performance delivering a line about needing Bob to do some explaining.

Back in Vermont, at the reception desk, Martha is complaining to a wardrobe mistress about her shoes “I can’t dance in these shoes” she says. “Are you sure it’s the shoes” retorts the wardrobe mistress. Both lines are delivered with complete conviction. But there is a certain irony to having Louise Plowright involved with such a dialogue, about shoes.

Susan, trying to get Martha to tell her whether she has talent, has been practising a number, and armed with a hat and cane, now performs a reprise of Let Me Sing And I’m Happy. Although Anna Bray did her best, and she seems to be a fairly decent young performer, this was unfortunately the worst reprise of the four in the show. However, this wasn’t Anna’s fault. The problem lay in giving her that song, of all things. The one that Louise Plowright had done so sensationally in the first act; especially with Louise actually standing there on stage watching it. A performer attempt a reprise of a number one of their colleagues has practically stopped the show with is asking rather a lot. However, Anna’s difficulty with putting this number across is much the same as that faced by Siobahn McCarthy performing Dancing Queen in Mamma Mia (at least if the performance on the cast album is anything to go by – it just doesn’t sound so good after hearing Louise Plowright sing it), and Siobahn was the original Donna Sheridan, so Anna is in pretty good company. Irving Berlin wrote masses of great show songs, surely they could have found something else just as good for one or other of these two points in the show. (what about: Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Heatwave, I Got The Sun In The Morning, The International Rag, Marching Along With Time, Mr Monotony, My Walking Stick, and, Pack Up Your Sins And Go To The Devil And Hades to name but a few – after all everyone of those was good enough for Ethel Merman).

Then there is a little set to between The General and Martha. In which The General is looking for his suits, which Martha informs him are at the laundry, so he’ll have to wear his uniform. How good Louise is at delivering witty lines. Here David Ives and Paul Blake have written some smashing ones, which Louise at least, does full justice to. Most notably The General points out that Martha is not his wife. At which Martha retorts that they might as well be married, after all they fight all the time and never have sex. Then the General opens a letter, to find he has got a job rejoining the army as an instructor. “See you can wear your uniform after all” says Martha. She really carries this scene with her ability to deliver cracking lines.

The show continues with two more reprises, which work rather better, not least because they are sung by the performers who sang them before, moving on to Christmas Day, Bob and Betty have returned finally together and reprise How Deep Is The Ocean.

In front of the drapes, the various ex soldiers having now arrived, there is a little kerfuffle, during which we hear Martha firmly pushing the general out on stage, as most of the men in the company reprise We’ll Follow The Old Man.  The General now quite won over to show business, and being an innkeeper, welcomes the visitors. Just then it finally starts snowing, this is shown through the open barn door at the back of the stage, as Aled leads the company with the title song White Christmas. With the exception of The General, who is in uniform, the rest of the company are all dressed in various red costumes. The male ensemble are all in red trousers and red ad white jumpers. Most of the female ensemble are in red velveteen-like frocks, the two giggling girls are naturally in red basques. As for the principals: Aled and Adam are in maroon suits. Rachel and Suzanne in long red ball-gowns. Anna in a red party frock, and Louise is in a red cocktail dress, with droopy red bows on black shoes. The finale then finds the whole company singing I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm. Everyone puts a lot into it. Louise, with her lovely big fruity voice lends it a certain depth. And of course not only do they all sing, there is a fair amount of dancing. Including, I particularly noticed, one moment, where Louise, for no apparent reason suddenly executed a neat time-step, as though Martha was carried away by the moment. All in all an absolutely first rate West End standard Christmas show, in Manchester. Really really good fun, some stunning performances, and some truly wonderful surprises. Overall the company proved there really is no business like show business or for that matter no people like show people. They did a splendid job.


It’s a great fun show, for all the family; full of lots of lovely tuneful Irving Berlin songs. I think the show could have benefited from a few more songs, instead of reprises. But apart from that the songs were great, and thankfully the orchestrations by Larry Blank do them justice. Irving Berlin’s songs are rarely ruined by orchestrators, but it can happen (have you ever heard what Adolph Deutsch and Conrad Salinger et al managed to do to I Got The Sun In The Morning And The Moon At Night?). The choreography is also excellent. Between them Randy Skinner, Sara Brians, and, Helen Rymer have done a fine job, devising dance routines that actually seem to suit the talents of the performers doing them. It probably helps that the casting seems to be pretty spot on. Adam Cooper of course gets the lions share of complex dancing, very ably partnered by Suzanne Shaw. Then Aled Jones acquits himself surprisingly well; and finally Louise Plowright is given just the sort of dance routine she seems to handle reasonably comfortably, without getting anything too horribly complex to do. She gets something that actually suits her abilities. The book by David Ives and Paul Blake is a wonderful feel good piece. I really like the fact that, unlike pantomimes, there is no actual villain. Rather like a classic good comic operetta or some early musical comedies there are simply silly misunderstandings which separate the romantic couples. There are however a few minor details which the book does not satisfactorily explain. While we do gather that Bob has been explaining to Betty what he actually meant by “company” and what he was really trying to do for The General. It is never shown how any of that is explained to Martha, who misunderstood the telephone message in the first place. It seems to me it should have done. The other missing details are rather minor. One can’t help wondering how Martha ended up working for The General. We presume The General was married at some point, but we never hear about any former wife, nor is any reference made to his child (or children), in other words Susan’s parents. But these are minor details.

All the ensemble gave a polished professional performance. The orchestra, conducted by Mr Robert Scott himself was just excellent. Of the various named characters who are not among the six principals, several are quite noticeable. There Mark Dickenson as Sheldrake, Phil Cole as Ezekiel the grounds man (he doesn’t say much, appears rather slow, and yet in the end he too is caught up with putting on a show). The is Emily Goodenough as the cigarette girl (though I’m not sure whether there was any reason why her character was Hungarian – American musicals of a certain era seem to have a tendency to use Hungarians for a certain kind of “foreigner”, what with: Zangler in Crazy For You, Hunayk in Chicago, and Flora Mizaros in Flora The Red Menace, why Hungarians in the first place? and why in this show of all things?). Then there are Laura Scott and Joanna Goodwin as Rita and Rhonda two irritatingly giggle some girls. They at least form a sharp contrast to the rather more sensible Haynes sisters.  There is also the wardrobe lady, I’m not sure who played her, but she did deliver a wonderful line rather well. Finally there is Susan Wavely, played tonight by Anna Bray. Basically Anna does a pretty good job, certainly her acting seems reasonable. It’s difficult to say anything definite about her singing, because unfortunately her big number is a reprise of Let Me Sing And I’m Happy, which was also Louise Plowright’s big number earlier in the show. And it was really asking rather a lot to expect Anna to make this number her own. I mean for it to actually work you’d need someone with a talent like that which Judy Garland had when she sang one of the Showboat numbers in Grand Rapids! I’m sure Anna’s performance would have come across much better if she had been doing a number that was truly her own in the show.

The show, at least according to it’s poster, has six principals. As General Wavely Roy Dotrice does a generally decent job, manages to be reasonably convincing. As Betty Haynes sometimes referred to as Miss Elizabeth Haynes, Rachel Stanley has the weakest presence of the principals. Fortunately she is able to incorporate this into her character, and she does act well, delivering her lines convincingly. Her singing is not bad. The problem is there are two other principals whose singing is better than hers, and they’ve got more presence too. However, she does give a perfectly satisfactory performance. A very good supporting player, or minor principal. Playing Betty’s sister Judy Haynes, Suzanne Shaw comes across rather better. People tend to think of Suzanne as a pop singer. But in fact, while her singing is clearly more than ok. Certainly good enough to handle some popular Irving Berlin songs decently, her role in this show plays much more to her strengths as a dancer. She has a fair amount of charisma, able to hold the audience well, when she needs too. Her character Judy Haynes, comes across as very likeable, despite being occasionally a little underhand (to get her way – such as sending Phil and Bob a note supposedly from a mutual friend). Perhaps her experiences playing Janet Weiss in the legendary 2006/07 tour of Rocky Horror may have helped. Playing a very definite song-and-dance man role, in the style of: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, or Donald O’Connor, we have Adam Cooper. The character tends most to the Gene Kelly type, I think. The character is called Phil Daniels; Making it one of those unfortunate characters, like Eric Dare in Jubilee, and Moon Face Martin in Anything Goes, where there actually exists a real person in a similar profession to their fictional namesake. This could unfortunately cause problems for future productions of this show. I hope it doesn’t, but sad to say such occurrences sometimes do (Certainly both Anything Goes, and, Jubilee have suffered as a consequence of such things). Anyway, Adam Cooper plays the character perfectly well. It is not a particularly complicated character (compared to others in the show). A bit of a ladies man, who very suddenly falls in love with just one girl. A very typical male character for a musical comedy. His singing is entirely satisfactory, as far as I can tell. After all these are Irving Berlin songs (not Cole Porter, or Sondheim). His dancing is, as one would expect, given his training, brilliant. Anytime he has to move about the stage you can’t help noticing that legacy.

The other major male character is Aled Jones, whom we primarily think of as a singer, which indeed is his main role in this show, and he does get to sing some lovely Berlin Ballads, perhaps in the style of Bing Crosby. However, one of the show’s surprises, is that he also has to dance, and since he must dance with Adam it has to be done well. This makes his performance more like Frank Sinatra. Fortunately Aled clearly can dance. Obviously he’s not at Adam’s level. However, he does jolly well.


The biggest surprise of the show is Louise Plowright. Tonight she is superbly well cast and correspondingly on top form. The character she plays suits her so well as an actress. She has just enough dancing to suit her capabilities. Her costumes also seem to suit her. It’s kind of strange having her blond hair hidden under a titan wig (though it does accentuate a sororial similarity to a certain diva). Anyway the wig seems to be right for the character she is playing. Everything is so right for her in this role (though she could have done with a couple more numbers), and best of all her singing is perfect. The musical director has evidently figured out how to get very best out of her. Ever since I first saw her in Mamma Mia, I knew she was a fine singer-actress. I also knew that as an accomplished actress, at least given the right role, she is well capable of holding her own on the stage no matter who her co-stars are. If she’s leading lady, then no one, absolutely no one, can overshadow her.  I also knew that as a splendid musical theatre singer she can usually make a good song her own, no matter who else has sung that number (at least if she likes the song). I also knew that she could belt reasonably well. What I didn’t know, is just how good and powerful a brassy Broadway-style belter she really is! One who can actually sock the lyrics over the footlights like a baseball coach belting a fly. Her piste de resistance comes in the middle of Act 1 (well two thirds of the way through it). When she tackles the near impossible-to-do-well task of singing in the styless style of Ethel Merman. If I hear a singer attempt to do a number a la Merman I want to hear a performance that will give me a sense of what it must have been like to be in the Alvin Theatre on the night of 14 October 1930. I want to hear a singer-actress who can demonstrate: What Cole Porter meant when he referred to “a voice that is still travelling when it reaches the back of the auditorium” or a singer who “sounds like a brass band going by”. What Ira Gershwin meant by a singer with the ability “to sustain a note for any human or indeed humane length of time”. What Pavarotti meant by describing a Broadway singer-actress who “could go from chest tones to head tones without shifting gears”. And what Toscanini meant when describing a Broadway star’s voice as “not a human voice, it’s another instrument in the band.” To ask a performer to demonstrate all of that in one go, and still make the song her own is perhaps asking rather a lot. Yet tonight Louise managed to demonstrate most of that (possibly not the chest-tones to head tones without shifting gears bit, but perhaps the song didn’t have much scope for it, after all this is Irving Berlin not Cole Porter). In seventeen years of theatregoing I have heard at least ten ladies who for one reason or another just couldn’t achieve that level: Earlene Bentley (Her Heatwave wasn’t all that great, though Marilyn Monroe’s was worse), Beverley Klein (a fine strong sensible singer, but ultimately not quite powerful enough), Ruthie Henshall (an overdone underpowered I Got Rhythm in Crazy For You), Jane Horrocks (rather underpowered, fortunately she was doing Annie Get Your Gun the only Merman musical where it doesn’t matter), Jessica Martin (a great belt voice, but never really herself, too much parody), Julia McKenzie (not all that powerful, but can sort of fake it), Tanya Moody, Elaine Paige, Angela Richards, and, Sally Ann Triplett. Most of them just don’t quite have sufficient vocal power. I’ve heard at least a further six on recordings, who also failed to hit the mark: Judy Kaye, Caroline O’Connor, Debbie Gravitte, Tyne Daly (mispronounced lyrics to Hostess With The Mostess thus losing the rhyme), Lorna Luft (somehow her performance on the John Mauceri Girl Crazy album fails to convey how or why I Got Rhythm, Boy What Love Has Done To Me, and Sam And Delilah changed Broadway history, if she’d been doing them out of context it might have been ok, but not on a studio cast album that was trying to give a sense of the original show,  Kim Criswell would have been a much better choice for that album), and, Tara Hugo (good but still a little underpowered). Many of these people are quite decent musical theatre singers, just not trying to do take offs of Ethel Merman, or numbers written for Merman. During those seventeen years I’ve only heard two other ladies, Kim Criswell and Louise Gold, (who I first heard in 1992 and 1994 respectively) who could actually achieve that style-less style as well as Louise Plowright did it tonight. In fifteen years I hadn’t heard anyone reach the level attained by those two, until tonight. Yes all three have their faults, after all musical theatre actresses are only human, but as Mermanesque-belters they are in a league of their own, and their faults can be overlooked. Criswell is the most musically accomplished of the trio (she trained at Cincinnati Conservatoire), she came to note singing Merman roles on the EMI Classics recordings, and has subsequently recorded some songs on the JAY/TER label. She has also played several of them on stage. Criswell’s fault is that she is none too good with accents, especially when doing long or high notes her Tennessee twang tends to come out very obviously, which when playing New York characters can seem a little odd, although it was perfect for Call Me Madam because that character is from the Southern States anyway. Gold, being the most versatile of the trio, has utilised her abilities with Mermanesque belting in a variety of places, ranging from West End Theatre and Lost Musicals concert stagings to Sesame Street. Gold’s fault is a tendency to very poor diction when she is tired (though she’s fine as long as she isn’t tired). Out of the entire trio Plowright seems to be the least known for doing Merman-style numbers, I’ve certainly never come across her attempting them before. And I think British musical theatre has been really missing out on something here. Plowright’s only fault is that she can’t really sell songs she doesn’t like. She’ll never do it badly (she’s too good an actress for that), but it won’t go across so well. However, since Merman herself actually refused to sing any song if she did not understand the lyrics, then Plowright’s little fault is quite minor in comparison (after all she will do the job). Fortunately tonight she really looked like she was enjoying the songs. There’s something about Irving Berlin’s songs which seems to suit her talents extremely well. Perhaps its a shared element of doin’ what comes naturally. Gosh how I’d love to hear her sing The International Rag (which Merman sang in the film version of Call Me Madam, and Criswell has also recorded). I’m sure if Louise Plowright were ever to get a hold of that song she’d make it something extra special. Anyway, it’s an absolute thrill to see her stunning performance in White Christmas, even if one does have to travel to Manchester to see it! She’s so West End standard, it would be great to have her back in London’s West End, though only if she had a role worthy of her extraordinary talents.

This production of White Christmas has a very high standard cast. No one is actually bad. Even the less good performances are not so terrible. Producer Michael Rose and casting director Debbie O’Brien have done a first rate job in assembling a splendid cast all well suited to the roles they are playing.  However, in my humble opinion the most striking thing about this production is that it shows a side of Louise Plowright’s talent that is truly amazing. A real honest to goodness Broadway-style vibrato belt of a Merman-horn of a voice. Very very few musical theatre performers can deliver their songs with a terrific whirlwind drive quite like that!!





Off Site Links:

To read my review of Red Hot And Blue fifteen years ago (the last time I was unexpectedly stunned by discovering a Mermaneque belter), please click here (I’ve heard some great Merman-style singing since then, but its always been from performers whom I knew what to expect).




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