A dreamy White Christmas at the Golden Gate

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The cast of the 2016 national touring company of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, part of the SHN season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Jeremy Benton (center left) and Sean Montgomery (center right) deliver the Berlin medley of “Happy Holiday” and “Let Yourself Go.” Photos by Jeremy Daniel

They call this the holiday season, but a more accurate name might be the comfort food and entertainment season. We want to enjoy and ingest everything familiar and warm and oozing with memories. If that’s sappy and corny, well so be it. Sappy and corny can be fun. And delicious.

Eleven years ago, our holiday entertainment bandwidth grew a little wider with the stage adaptation of White Christmas, the 1954 movie that solidified the evergreen popularity of Irving Berlin’s holiday ballad (which, incidentally, had its premiere in and won the Academy Award for Holiday Inn in 1942, which, further incidentally, has its own stage adaptation on Broadway right now). Why limit the world’s best-selling record to one stage musical when you can have two? Anyway, the stage version of White Christmas, which added Berlin’s name to the title to create one of those awkward labeling situations (Irving Berlin’s White Christmas as if there could be any doubt), started life in St. Louis in 2000 and was revamped and retooled and aimed for Broadway (where it finally landed in 2008) with a launch at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre.

That production was pure delight, the kind of instant Christmas classic that would inevitably be taking its place alongside the Christmas Carols and Nutcrackers. Sure enough, White Christmas is a perennial, and this year’s touring production has returned to San Francisco, only this time at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season.

Directing duties have gone from Walter Bobbie to original choreographer Randy Skinner, but this is essentially the same show with the same musical theater dazzle and same holiday warm fuzzies.

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It’s pretty much a can’t-miss situation from the start: you’ve got more than a dozen Irving Berlin songs tucked into a story about WW II veterans-turned Broadway stars doing a good deed for their former general and falling in love with a pair of talented sisters along the way. It’s pure 1950s movie musical fluff, and it has been adapted for the stage with a genuine love for those movies and a sharp theatrical eye that delivers on dazzle and has just enough heart to keep it from being a shiny, hollow ornament.

The tour leads have Technicolor charisma. As the performing duo of Wallace and Davis, Sean Montgomery and Jeremy Benton have that Gene Kelly/Donald O’Connor vibe (I know it was Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the movie, but these guys are more Gene/Donald, which is great, and O’Connor was initially slated for the role of Davis but had to drop out due to illness). Benton is a mad tapper, and he gets to headline the show’s most rousing number, the Act 2 opener “I Love a Piano.” Montgomery gets the evening’s sweetest song, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.” How can you resist a lilting lullaby that encourages gratitude?

As sisters Betty and Judy Haynes, Kerry Conte and Kelly Sheehan, get another score highlight, “Sisters,” and Sheehan matches Benton tap for tap on “Piano.” Conte’s big moment is a solo lounge act number, “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and she makes it distinctive.

In the supporting cast, Conrad John Schuck is a believable war hero now grudgingly running a Vermont inn and Lorna Luft has some sharp comic chops but misses the the big Merman-esque blast of her solo, “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”

Of course the sets by Anna Louizos are blasts of color for the big numbers and cozy Christmas chintz for the inn scenes. Costumes by Carrie Robbins feel like the big-skirted ’50s only slightly exaggerated for musical theater, and the band, headed by musical director Michael Horsley, has the percussive oomph and brassy blast when needed and a more tender side for the ballads. By the time the snow starts to fall at the finale (sorry, Spoiler Alert!), all you really need are jingle bells because the audience is firmly in its holiday happy place, beaming in the glow of the White Christmas comfort and light.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas continues through Dec. 24 as part of the SHN season at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$214 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Hello, Jerry Herman!

Saw a fantastic documentary last night that I highly recommend: Word and Music by Jerry Herman. It was on PBS for about a second, but it’s available via PBS Home Video.

Clearly this was a labor of love for Amber Edwards, who produced, wrote, directed and edited the 90-minute movie. She adores Herman, and it’s easy to see why. He’s frank, funny and endearing. He and Edwards do corny things like visit his childhood home and grade school, but the better part of the film is spent concentrating on Herman’s extraordinary work. And it is extraordinary. Too often Herman is dismissed for not being Sondheim. But there’s something to be said for a man who writes music and lyrics that inspire joy, or at the very least, a smile. Herman is more than capable of doing that.

Of the many talking heads, Michael Feinstein is the most eloquent about Herman’s musical skill, which is underrated. Feinstein demonstrates Herman’s skill by singing a song cut from Hello, Dolly! called “Penny in My Pocket,” then he unleashes Herman’s genius for lyric and melody when he sings “I Won’t Send Roses” from Mack and Mabel.

There’s great footage — seemingly from somebody’s home movie camera — from the original Broadway productions of Dolly and Mame. Of particular interest to me was the section on Dear World, the flop the followed hot on the heels of the Dolly-Mame juggernaut. Angela Lansbury starred in Herman’s musical adaptation of Giradoux’s The Mad Woman of Chaillot. It’s my favorite of Herman’s scores, and, somewhat ironically, it contains some of his worst songs. I’ll gladly tolerate the mediocrity of the title song (which Herman admits was a mistake) to revel in the rich musical pleasures of “Each Tomorrow Morning” or “I Don’t Want to Know.” Lansbury says she must take some of the blame for the show’s failure (in spite of the Tony Award she won for it), but the divine Angela can’t really be blamed for anything but being a consummate pro.

Another of the movie’s heroes is George Hearn, who did drag in a big way in Herman’s La Cage aux Folles. I had no idea that Hearn, who was genius in the role of ZaZa/Albin, was embarrassed by the drag — at first. He got used to it. Hearn is clearly moved by the experience to this day and the effect the musical had on people.

The extras on the DVD are few but delectable. We get the full title song from Hello, Dolly! as performed at Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural ball in 1965 (black and white, small stage, synched to the original cast recording). Carol Channing is at her preening best. There’s also a well filmed clip of a number called “Dancin’ Shoes,” which Herman wrote for his 1955 college show at the University of Miami. It’s very Gene Kelly-ish. And finally, from The Merv Griffin Show, we get a great clip of Herman playing piano while Ethel Merman sings “Before the Parade Passes By.” We don’t get much of Ethel and Jerry’s time on Merv’s couch (where Lucille Ball, curiously, is a guest), but we get a tasty morsel.

Seeing Herman’s body of work together like this — from Parade and Milk and Honey to The Grand Tour — helps foster new appreciation for a great American composer who, when all is said and done, will find his place next to greats such as Irving Berlin and, yes, Stephen Sondheim.

For more information visit www.pbs.org.

Here’s the brilliant George Hearn singing “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles.”