Review: White Christmas at Liverpool Empire ****
It’s usually snow which throws plans into disarray – but it’s the lack of the cold, fluffy stuff which causes the biggest headache for the characters in White Christmas.
The stage musical version of the 1954 film, packed with its delightful roster of tunes from Irving Berlin, was last at the Empire for Christmas 2011 and has returned (in the form of a well-received production out of Leicester Curve) for another festive season of bonhomie and big song-and-dance numbers.
Nikolai Foster’s original direction, reinvigorated here by Ian Talbot, and Stephen Mear’s classic choreography combine to create something charming that harks back to those big MGM-style Technicolor musicals of the 1950s.
It’s certainly handsomely staged thanks to designer Michael Taylor, from the American In Paris-style neon advertising signs to the full moon which forms the backdrop for the balletic The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing, to the giant barn where former army buddies-turned-stage stars Bob Wallace (Jay McGuiness) and Phil Davis (Dan Burton) put on a show to help out their old army General (Liverpool’s Michael Starke).
Love is in the air after the pair follow the talented Haynes sisters Betty (Jessica Daley) and Judy (Monique Young) north to Vermont instead of a planned trip south to Miami, but while Burton’s urbane womaniser Phil and Young’s flirty Judy hit it off immediately, the course of true love doesn’t run quite as smoothly for the more cynical Bob and Betty.
The quartet are clearly having a ball and are very watchable; Burton is a consummate song and dance man and he and the talented Young have a great rapport, while Daley has a chance to show off her rich vocals in an emotional Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me.
Above: Dan Burton as Phil and Monique Young as Judy with the White Christmas ensemble. Top: Monique Young, Jessica Daley, Dan Burton and Jay McGuiness. Photos by Ellie Kurtt
Meanwhile McGuiness, who lifted the Strictly glitterball seven years ago, may not be a trained musical theatre actor but he's evidently a diligent pupil and shows a set of twinkle toes here too, along with a sweet singing voice, although he’s rather softly spoken and would benefit from projecting a bit more in both his numbers and dialogue.
Sometimes I find myself wincing at the Spinal Tap-level amplification in the Empire auditorium, but in fact this is one show where it could do with more volume – certainly the sound in the first half on press night seemed rather muted, although happily someone had discovered the volume control during the interval.
But there’s an awful lot to enjoy in the staging and the energetic performances – not least the stylish delivery of the harmonically complicated Berlin ensemble number Snow, a fantastic tap-dancing opener to the second half, Hollywood royalty Lorna Luft bringing wisecracking sass and ballsy vocals as concierge Martha, and a lovely turn from Lucy Warway as the General’s guileless granddaughter Susan, as well as a swinging band in the pit and neat vein of humour which runs through the entire script.
Will it turn out to be a White Christmas? You’ll have to wait until the end to find out.