COURTESY MARK AND TRACY PHOTOGRAPHYThe cast of Hillbarn Theatre’s “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” sings and dances up a storm.

Hillbarn’s ‘White Christmas’ is merry and bright

Hillbarn Theatre’s production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” is mostly merry and bright thanks to some charismatic performances by its leading players. The musical, which had its world premiere in San Francisco in 2004, is an adaptation of the 1954 Paramount film starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. It takes its Oscar-winning title song from 1942’s similarly plotted and Bing Crosby-starring “Holiday Inn.”

Pierce Peter Brandt in the Crosby role is the highlight of the production directed by Virginia Musante. A genial, natural actor, Brandt is also a gifted crooner with a rich, powerful range and his singing style is perfectly adapted to the mid-century romantic balladeer. The whole production truly rises to a new level when he’s in the spotlight and he is bracketed by two solid partners.

As his skirt-chasing sidekick Phil Davis, Jim Ambler is a likeable comic foil, who offsets Brandt’s sophistication with a rougher-hewn, seemingly laissez-faire everyguy masculinity. Ambler gets to strut some considerable dance chops and he and Brandt pick up a pair of powder blue-feathered fans for a reprise of “Sisters”; it’s charmingly funny without ever devolving into camp.

On the distaff side, Melissa O’Keefe does a nice job of balancing Betty’s reflexive suspicions about Bob’s intentions with a growing feeling that this guy could be the one. O’Keefe sings well and looks perfect for the period in Kate Schroder’s costumes.

Amanda Farbstein brings a spunky energy to good-time sister Judy, dances well opposite Ambler (to Gennine Harrington’s engaging choreography) and has some funny moments running interference with some predatory chorus girls. What starts to wear thin is a constant toothy grin that over time becomes something of a grimace. Also, a poorly styled wig by Lisa Cross does not flatter her.

Without a drop of saccharine, young Emily Mannion deftly steals scenes from any adult around her. That includes Bob Fitzgerald and Claudia McCarley, who are visually perfect as the innkeeper/general and the switchboard operator who loves him. Unfortunately, neither of seemed in harmony with their dialogue or song keys on opening night.

That musical deficit (and a horn section that needs detention time with music director Rick Reynolds) was made all the more noticeable by the exceptionally high quality of the other solos and exceptional choral work overseen by Tracy Chiappone.

Scenic designer Kuo-Hao Lo scores big with the barn set, but seems to have run short of inspiration before that reveal. Andrew Kang’s sound is nicely balanced, but the lighting by Don Coluzzi is occasionally murky for the otherwise bright and cheerful evening.

REVIEW

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closes Dec. 21

Tickets: $23 to $42

Contact: (650) 349-6411, www.hillbarntheatre.org

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