Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A "White Christmas" review rebuttal

Increasingly, the holidays seem to bring out the Grinch in people.

I was reminded of the Grinch Phenomenon when I read Liz Jewett's review on Richmond.com of Barksdale Theatre's production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas.

Ms. Jewett is a thoughtful and eloquent writer and I often agree with her reviews. And while I didn't disagree with some of her observations in this one, I believe she inappropriately and needlessly inserted her own Grinchy commentary by attacking elements of the show that do not necessitate comment. Like the fact that a Christmas show is typically cheery and upbeat. No-brainer, right?

Illustration by Robert Meganck

"'White Christmas' [is] an attempt at a timeless, feel good Christmas story. Yet instead of timeless, the play merely feels static and stubbornly anachronistic, largely because of its insistence on 'old-fashioned' cheer to the point of a sugar coma.

"There’s a world of honest, human emotion that 'White Christmas' could have tapped into. It’s a play about two veterans after all, men who have seen death and violence, only to come home to a society that honors them more for being famous than for having fought. Yet any hint at a darker world that isn’t bedecked in tinsel is smothered in a holiday spirit so aggressive it practically berates the audience into following along."

It seems Ms. Jewett might be expecting some coal in her stocking this year.



Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney -- remember?!

This production isn't supposed to be the holiday musical version of "Saving Private Ryan." It is supposed to be a festive, celebratory occasion where the characters are intentionally forgetting about death, violence and that "darker world" by singing, dancing, and romancing. Punishing a famous holiday classic for not being serious enough seems a bit harsh.

I sat in the audience the same night Ms. Jewett did, next to two patrons whose preferred venue is Hanover Tavern. However, they enjoyed every single moment of White Christmas at the Empire Theatre, and I frequently heard murmurs of "wow," "fantastic," "outstanding." I'm fairly confident that I can speak for all three of us when I say we didn't feel one bit berated. To the contrary, we let the holiday spirit fall upon us of our own accord.

Perhaps the most Grinch-like sentiments came at the end of Ms. Jewett's review:

"...holiday spirit only works if it's coming from a genuine place, an honest place, and 'White Christmas,' despite the best efforts of all involved, ultimately chooses fake snow over the real thing. And it insults the audience by assuming they won’t know the difference."

This is metaphoric, but only to a degree. She is, of course, making reference to the snow that falls on the audience at the end of the show. It is not confetti, but more like dime-sized foamy puffs that evaporate before they hit the floor. I (and everyone around me) thought it was magical. I heard one patron say, "It's snowing in the Empire!"

Did they think it was real snow? Of course not. Did they feel that the show's positive energy and Christmas spirit were disingenuous or contrived? Doubtful. Did they leave the theatre that night, thinking they had seen an outstanding Broadway caliber feel-good holiday production? Absolutely.

Photo by Aaron Sutten
Christmas is about giving and sharing, a time when people come together and celebrate, when lightheartedness and kindness prevail. It is the one time of year when we have permission to forget about the ugliness in our world and instead, focus on its beauty.

If this show gives people the chance to escape the pressures and demands of their daily lives; if it gives them a pleasant distraction from the reality of loss and hardship; if it brings back fond memories of holidays spent with loved ones.... then I believe Barksdale's production of White Christmas is successfully embodying the spirit of the holiday season, and I sincerely believe the majority of Richmonders who see this show would enthusiastically agree.

The good news is that even the Grinch discovered the meaning behind the hoopla of Christmas. So certainly, Ms. Jewett will as well.

He puzzled and puzzled 
till his puzzler was sore. 
Then the Grinch thought of something 
he hadn't before! 
Maybe Christmas, he thought, 
doesn't come from a store. 
Maybe Christmas... perhaps... 
means a little bit more! 
And what happened then?
Well, in Whoville they say
that the Grinch's small heart 
grew three sizes that day. 
And then -- the true meaning 
of Christmas came through, 
and the Grinch found the strength 
of *ten* Grinches, plus two! 


  1. Pretty spot on review I thought. She seemed to praise the good stuff and gripe about the book and lack of honesty a lot. True to form. If you like that sort of thing have at it. If you quibble about such things as good book writing or honest engagement then it's probably not the show for you. Or for Ms. Jewett.

  2. I'm thrilled to learn that Barksdale has received an outpouring of patron accolades for this show. Take the comments below:

    "We thought Barksdale’s production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas was a triumph. With such FIRST RATE performances, I fully expect it will continue to delight your audiences as it did us! We thank you so much!" -RG, Richmond

    "It was stunning - the music, the dancing, a cast of young and talented actors and actresses belting out some of the best music (Thanks, Irving Berlin) we have ever heard. Feeling good is something a lot of us are missing in these turbulent times. Your show is an experience I would wish for everyone!" -HC, Farmville

  3. Excellent blahg, Emmy. Why can't people be allowed to simply "feel good" for an hour or 2? Why does everything have to examine or deal with the dark side of life? I don't think there's anyone alive who is "unaware" of the gloomy side. We don't need reminding, and certainly not in this timeless, FEEL GOOD, "Christmas Classic"!

  4. LOL! I personally did not see Jewett's review for the show but from the snippets I am reading, this FOR SURE was not the show for her!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I have to laugh and your observations are so great. I especially liked the Saving Private Ryan comment! WHY on EARTH would this show EVER focus on that stuff!? THAT would miss the point of the show entirely! hahahah!!!
    Thank you for the blog!
    Thank you all for your support of our show!!
    Andrea Rivette (Betty Haynes!)