“Shaking the Christmas Blues Away at Holiday Inn…”
Musical Theatre West, Southern California’s Premier Musical Theatre Company, in association with Paul Garman, Executive Director/Producer, presents "Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn,” a toe-twinkling, ivory tickling musical, co-written and revitalized with a modern sensibility by the team of Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge. Now playing to sell-out crowds at Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center through December 15th, there are only six more performances remaining in this tour-de-force show of the Christmas season.
Directed by Danny Pelzig, with Musical Direction by Dennis Castellano and Choreography by Christine Negherbon, this country mouse/city mouse holiday romance is inspired by the classic 1942 Universal picture of the same name. Two erstwhile song and dance partners, Jim Hardy (Cameron Bond, Broadway: “Be More Chill,” “Finding Neverland”) and his fiancée Lila Dixon (Jennifer Knox, MTW: “Something Rotten,” Nat’l Tour: “Cats”) are about to ditch show business and settle into country life on a Connecticut farm that Jim purchased at auction. At least that’s the plan for one of them.
Jim is eager and ready to give up the footlights of Flatbush for the dimmer bulbs of rural farm life, but Lila is less convinced. She is easily led off on a road tour with the third member of the trio act, Jim’s old buddy Ted Hanover (Jeffrey Scott Parsons, MTW: “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” “Catch Me if you Can”), who convinces her to delay her wedding.
As Jim licks his wounds and slouches off to Connecticut, he loses Lila to Ted, who has a habit of stealing away Jim’s girlfriends,
but his luck takes a turn when the former owner of his farm drops by to pick up a few things — a performer with talent to spare who’s turned country schoolteacher: triple-threat Linda Mason (Natalie Storrs, Nat’l Tour: “Sister Act,” Off-Broadway: “Red Roses, Green Gold”). Because life just isn’t the same without a bit of song and dance.
Once ensconced in his new life, Jim finds that his new home is actually a money pit, and struggles to keep afloat, despite the maternal ministrations of live-in handywoman, Louise (Liz Eldridge, “The Death of Madea,” “The Society Now: Babylon”), who knows her way around a hoe and also sprays the stage with Rose Marie-type wisecracks on a par with the old Dick Van Dyke show. Ms. Eldridge, a remarkable character actor, magnificently channels Marjorie Main perfectly in her role, from the maid in “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944).
Also given a series of rather canned gags is a licorice-chewing messenger boy from the bank named Charlie, played with deadpan spunk by David Landis, who implausibly keeps serving Jim with bank papers signaling his increasingly dire financial straits.
The next thing you know, the struggling farmhouse is descended upon by Jim’s old showbiz buddies, a loyal troupe of dancers and singers who are all more than happy to put their careers on hold to help their dancing colleague save the farm. Their visit inspires Jim and his new, shy schoolteacher friend Linda to convert his ranch-house farm into the ultimate off-off-off Broadway show palace inn featuring lavish musical entertainments, but open only on holidays. Apparently chorus girls and boys never work on New Year’s Eve or the Fourth of July. Who knew?
A clutch of suitably themed holiday revues follow — Christmas and New Year’s Eve 1946 (“Let’s Start the New Year Right”), Valentine’s Day 1947, followed by Easter, Independence Day and Thanksgiving (“Plenty to Be Thankful For”) — which act as the guideposts to lurch the plot forward, all while true love doth flourish with classic Berlin tunes hanging on every sizzling look.
Meanwhile, Jim's new venture is rapidly becoming the talk of the industry. His budding romantic relationship with Linda, however, becomes threatened when Ted turns up the lothario heat and drunkenly dances with her, deciding she would make a perfect partner for his new act. But Jim has a few ideas of his own this time.
So, let’s review: The happy-go-lucky characters, attractive and talented one and all, inhabit a world where travel from Connecticut to Hollywood happens in the wink of an eye, the calendar consists only of holidays, threats of financial ruin come from a cute kid on a scooter, and World War II apparently never occurred. This is escapist fare at full tilt, but a welcomed getaway at a time when the real world is decidedly off its axis.
Although the story is more fleshed out than in the film, the rudimentary book by Greenberg and Hodge presents a slapdash persona of the characters with not much definition beyond thin archetypes. Instead it relies on a plethora of clichéd jokes, such as when Jim's frustrated agent, upon hearing of his client's plan to move to Connecticut, warns him, "You'll end up wearing plaid and repressing your feelings."
All of the performers are exceptionally skilled singers and actors, filling in the generic contours of their characters with proficient professionalism.
Mr. Bond’s singing is superb here. Mr. Parsons brings a lively, knockabout charm to the role of Ted, who reappears after Lila dumps him for a Texas millionaire. Ms. Knox brings a classy movie star quality to the role of Lila with her elegant dancing and lovely voice, while Ms. Storrs’ Linda has a natural sweetness, and a soprano of a similar sweetness that makes her very plausible as a rising star in the show. There is a storyline to follow, but it is clear from the start that it mainly serves as a launching pad for the beautiful songs of Irving Berlin, and to pause when a big dance number is ready to stop the show.
Several of those robust Berlin standards – “White Christmas,” ”Easter Parade,” “Heat Wave” (which was also written for “As Thousands Cheer,” and performed by Ethel Merman in the movie “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and by Marilyn Monroe in “There’s No Business Like Show Business”), “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” and “Cheek to Cheek” – are special treats, with zippy orchestrations courtesy of Larry Blank and zestful playing by the orchestra, conducted by Music Director Dennis Castellano.
Two of the more lively numbers in which choreographer Christine Negherbon is matchless is in the rousing “Shaking the Blues Away,” center-staging the chorus in a spirited skip rope piece with Christmas garlands, as well as a percussive flying tap routine in “Song of Freedom, ” capturing precise choreography and unapologetic playfulness to a perfect pitch. Both numbers brought the house down in a roar of approval.
Baby boomers will also remember other, similar “let’s put on a show” movies, never far from mind as you watch the story develop (one being the 1950 “Summer Stock,” also with its farm and dance tale). There are also many movie references that go into their own wonderful universe.
Quieter dramatic scenes are powered by competing romances, interspersed with witty puns and comedy bits, but in this show, the exuberant big dance numbers dominate. “Blue Skies” is a grand hello to the country life, led by a boisterous and compelling Mr. Bond and the ensemble. And “It’s a Lovely Day Today” is a gorgeous treatment of a walking tune at a walking tempo, during which Ms. Knox’s Lila pays a visit to the farm and tells Jim they’re now splitsville.
Side Note: The song that is the most popular, of course, is "White Christmas," which was conceived by Berlin on the set of the film "Top Hat" in 1935. He hummed the melody to Astaire as a song possibility for a future Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle. Astaire loved the tune, but his director passed on it.
Berlin found that writing a song about Christmas was most challenging, due to his Jewish upbringing. The song "Be Careful, it's My Heart," from the Valentine's Day section of the musical, was actually intended to be a bigger hit. But when Bing Crosby heard Berlin play "White Christmas" in 1941 at first rehearsals, he realized its full potential and not only became the central theme in “Holiday Inn,” but also a decade later in his most famous film with Danny Kaye in “White Christmas.”
Before launching into “You’re Easy to Dance With,” which kicks off the second act, some incredible Jeffrey Scott Parsons moves with a ghost light, featuring several of the female ensemble, evokes a famous Astaire gesture with a hat rack. But his explosive interpretation of Astaire’s famous firecracker dance from the movie, “Let’s Say it with Firecrackers,” raised the audience to high decibel levels and delighted all, reveling in his enthusiastic taps, spins, and detonations at his feet.
The role of Danny is played by Jeff Skowron. Ensemble members include: Lucas Blankenhorn, Carlin Castellano, Maggie Darago, Fatima El-Bashir, Chaz Feuerstine, Sylvie Gosse, Carly Haig, Patrick Heffernan, Katie Marshall, Gabriel Navarro, Linda Neel, Erik Scott Romney, Clay Stefanki, Adam Stern-Rand, Stephanie Urko, and Landon Zwick.
Lighting Design is by Paul Black, Sound Design is by Julie Ferrin and Prop Manager is Dylan Powell. Wigs are by Michon Gruber-Gonzales, Technical Director is Kevin Clowes, and Costume Coordinator is Tamara Becker. Production Manager is Matt Terzigni, Production Stage Manager is Shay Garber, Assistant Stage Manager is Kathryn Davies and Company Manager is Bren Thor. Anna Louizos' sets are more than serviceable, the costumes, based on designs by Alejo Vietti are outstanding, especially in the elaborate production numbers, and Larry Blank's orchestrations serve the classic songs beautifully, only enhancing the sheer joy that the production's showstoppers elicit.
In fact, so sweetly wholesome is this show…so gooey, drippy, predictably toe-curling, that you experience a sugar rush while watching it. And it will surely provide a happy diversion for stressed-out theatergoers during the holiday season. Director Danny Pelzig has to be having a great time directing this, and it filters down to every aspect of the production.
“Holiday Inn” proves that some stories do stand the test of time. And with the holidays nipping at our heels right now, what could be better than a modernized musical tribute to one of the most glorious Christmas classics ever. I can assure you, this will be a Holiday Inn you'll want to check into.
"Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn," playing through Sunday, December 15th. For online ticket information, please go to http://musical.org/holiday-inn/
The Show Report
Photo Credit: Caught in the Moment Photography