REVIEW: "IRVING BERLIN'S HOLIDAY INN" — Vanguard University Drama

Updated: Nov 24


COSTA MESA — NOVEMBER 22, 2022

The Christmas season seems to start earlier every year. Even before Halloween. Even before our Black Friday shopping sprees. Will we soon be hearing sleigh bells in spring?


This year, Vanguard University’s Drama Department has obliged all whose hearts are already pining for candy canes and mistletoe by presenting “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” through December 11th, a perky but streamlined stage adaptation of the 1942 Paramount Pictures film that is fondly remembered for Bing Crosby’s crooning “White Christmas,” which you can perpetually hear right now on KOST 103.5’s looped holiday tunes daily.


If you’ll notice, the musical bills itself as “Irving Berlin’s,” but most people realize Berlin died in 1989. Yet while the writers of the show’s book, Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, have made additions and subtractions to and from both the story and the score (including the minstrel number in the movie performed in blackface) the Berlin songbook remains mostly full mixed with the basic plot ingredients borrowed from the movie. Opening on Broadway in 2016 after premiering at the Goodspeed Opera House in 2014, the creators, to most attendees' delight, also feature songs from other Irving Berlin shows and movie musicals. "Holiday Inn" instantly became a classic and went on to be nominated for both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for Choreography.



The musical’s premise, you’ll recall, is that lead character Jim (alternately played by Elijah Munck and Luke Desmond) is ready to give up his singing career and his partnership with Ted (Brenner Farr) for the quiet life of a farmer, trading in his piano for a tractor. And the third member of their act, Lila (alternately played by Gabrielle Paul and Vanessa Burch), a spirited and passionate chorine who would be right at home in “Guys and Dolls” can’t quite decide if she wants to quit and marry Jim or keep touring with Ted.



Lila is played with calculating pepperiness bordering on caricature, so there’s little mystery about which she will choose: either get hitched and start making like an American Gothic farmer's wife or head out on the road with the third member of the act, the lively hoofer Ted Hanover. Soon, it's twenty-three skidoo for the pair of them, while Ted sheds his tux, shops for overalls and heads North to settle into the grueling life of a country innkeeper.



And so while Lila and Ted dance off to pursue stardom, Jim slouches in Connecticut, where he soon finds himself struggling to keep afloat, despite the maternal ministrations of an essentially new wry character, a busybody jack-of-all-trades named Louise (portrayed by Jordan Ward and Jenna Lockwood alternately). Louise knows a little about everything, especially her way around a hoe, but also acts as his confidante, advisor and friend...all the while spraying the stage with Thelma Ritter-type wisecracks.


Broadway alumni Nikki Snelson, as the show’s director and choreographer, wisely keeps the show bouncing along with a string of classic tunes like “It's a Lovely Day Today,” “Be Careful, It's My Heart,” “Shakin' The Blues Away” and a showbiz milieu that allows for the inclusion of songs like the opening tap number which has nothing in particular to do with the plot — “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” and Ted and Lila’s “Heat Wave.” Ms. Snelson’s concerted dances, as well as Lia Hansen’s costumes, borrow overtly from the past while making standard ’40s nightclub routines look fresh and ultramodern.


Greenberg and Hodge have also reimagined the movie’s other woman, Linda Mason, promoting her from just another would-be performer to a spunky local schoolteacher who sells Jim the family farm and then hangs around to help him adjust to the rustic conditions of the Connecticut wilderness. Linda (in the persons of Logan Cranford and Rezia Landers, performing in succession, also sings and dances like a dream; her first song in the show, “Marching Along With Time” proves she can hold her own at all speeds) eventually becomes his love interest and he convinces her to be the new star for his nightclub he has built at the Inn for holiday shows — as fate would have it, she once aspired to be a performer too. She soon becomes a fixture at the inn, designed by Paul Eggington, to faintly recall the one in the film.



Also new, and also given a series of crackerjack gags: a local messenger boy named Charlie, played with deadpan spunk by Julian Gwin, Daniel Peters and Sawyer Sublette, who take turns keeping Jim served with bank papers, signaling his increasingly dire financial straits. Rounding out the main characters is Micah Munck as the all-business, straight-from-central-casting agent for Ted, Jim and Lila.



All of the performers are skilled singers and actors, filling in the generic contours of their characters with proficient professionalism. Mr. Munck/Mr. Desmond is superb as a sensitive, overprotective Jim. And Mr. Farr brings a lively, knockabout charm to the role of Ted, who reappears after Lila dumps him for a Texas millionaire, and soon sets his sights on nabbing Linda as a new partner.


The character of Lila vamps it up dynamically, while Linda has a natural sweetness that makes her convincing as a small-town schoolteacher, and a soprano of a similar sweetness that makes her plausible as a possible star.



Aside from “White Christmas,” the best-known songs are probably “Holiday Inn/Happy Holiday” — another seasonal favorite — and “Easter Parade,” which was written earlier for the stage revue “As Thousands Cheer” but fits nicely into the plot, naturally. To these Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Hodge have added such Berlin gems as “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “Heat Wave” (also written for “As Thousands Cheer,” but performed by Ethel Merman in the movie “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and by Marilyn Monroe in “There’s No Business Like Show Business”).


The interpolated songs are integrated into the plot smoothly enough, without lifting the show’s mild temperature or bringing new definition to the characters. And the choreography features numerous tap routines including a spirited jump-rope number, which may be the freshest novelty. As a grand and familiar Broadway exercise in nostalgia, "Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn" is truly a great holiday gift for the aborning of the theater Christmas season.


WITH: Elijah Munck, Luke Desmond, Logan Cranford, Rezia Landers, Brenner Farr, Gabrielle Paul, Vanessa Burch, Jordan Ward, Jenna Lockwood, Micah Munck, Julian Gwin, Daniel Peters, Sawyer Sublette, Leilani Cranford, Kay Hackworth, Gregory Dodd, Jaida Albanito, Yasmine Reid, Sadie Alexander, Jaden Massaro, Omar Dena, Ethan Munck, Audrey Gall, Rylee Schmidt, Arabella Chrastina.


VANGUARD UNIVERSITY PRESENTS IRVING BERLIN’S HOLIDAY INN, playing November 18th through December 11th at The Lyceum Theater on the campus of Vanguard University; Directed and Choreographed by Nikki Snelson; Music by Irving Berlin; Written by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge; Based on the film from Universal Pictures; Orchestrations by Larry Blank; Vocal & Dance Arrangements by Sam Davis; Additional Dance/Vocal Arrangements by Bruce Pomahac; Music Directed by Scott Cokely; Stage Managed by Sarah Snow; Scenic Designer/Tech Director/Audio by Paul Eggington; Costume & Makeup Design by Lia Hansen; Lighting Design by Garrett Spady. For more information, visit www.vanguard.edu. For tickets, visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/36168



Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

www.theshowreport.org