Monday, December 26, 2016

Theater Review: Irving Berlin’s ‘Holiday Inn,’ Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Co.

The Roundabout Theatre Co.. advertises Holiday Inn as “The New Irving Berlin Musical,” but it’s hard to see what’s “new” about it.  It’s more like a car reassembled from an assortment of parts, then given a spiffy paint job. In spirit, it’s even less modern, with a lightweight plot that’s a throwback to the pre-Cabaret, pre-Sondheim era.

But the engine of this production—the lyrics and melodies of Irving Berlin—remains in remarkably good shape, efficiently driving the show forward. At the end of the show, I doubt that you’d find anyone complaining about what they’d just seen at Studio 54.

Holiday Inn is based, more or less, on the 1942 movie of the same. The latter is about a popular three-person vaudeville song-and-dance team who split up when members Jim Hardy (played by Bing Crosby) and Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) plan to marry and become Connecticut farmers. 

But before the nuptials, Lila gets cold feet, confesses that the farm life is not for her and goes off with the third member of the team, Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire). Jim continues to like the idea of farm life, but can’t see how to make a going concern of it until he lights on the idea of an inn on the property that will only remain open for the 15 holidays of the year. He is harmonizing quite nicely, personally and professionally, with Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), his co-star in this new venture, when Ted—cast adrift by Lila—re-enters the picture….

The movie, which introduced to audiences Bing Crosby’s holiday staple, “White Christmas,” is arelaxed, charming, unpretentious production that I enjoyed immensely when I saw it 40 years ago. I can’t say the same about the 1954 film that tried to milk the tune at its center for all it was worth, White Christmas, with Danny Kaye replacing Astaire as Crosby’s co-star.

In this “revisal” (a fancy entertainment industry term for a production whose “revival” often involves a new, less politically incorrect book), the Broadway show’s creative team, Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, tinkered with a few elements of the plot, then corralled tunes from a whole gamut of Berlin musicals (e.g., “Blue Skies,” “Easter Parade,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Shaking the Blues Away”), before road-testing the product at the estimable Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut and The Muny in St. Louis before starting its current run in New York in October.

Bryce Pinkham and Corbin Bleu (the latter best remembered for his role on High School Musical) have assumed the crucial—and thankless—roles of Crosby and Astaire. They won’t make anyone forget those two musical-comedy icons (my God, who ever could?), but they perform quite creditably. 

Pinkham, gifted with a pleasant voice, smoothly handled the vocals on “White Christmas,” while Bleu—an extraordinary dancer—pulled off the firecracker dance sequence that served as an Astaire showstopper on the big screen. Lora Lee Gayer and Megan Sikora lent their talents—a lovely voice and dazzling footwork, respectively--to the roles of Linda and Lila, and Megan Lawrence provided an excellent comic foil as a female who can handle farm chores and tools as well as any man. (The role on film was played by a male.)

Greenberg and choreographer Denis Jones offer one musical number after another that not only make the 2 hours and 15 minutes of the show pass in no time, but also leave the audience on a high over the dazzling skill displayed onstage.

Holiday Inn runs through January 15, but it would be a shame for anyone with free time—and an accommodating Mother Nature—to pass it up the opportunity to see it between now and the new year. The film premiered in U.S. theaters in August 1942, when WWII made American audiences desperate for escapism. The musical arrived on Broadway this year amid its own moment of uncertainty—an election of extraordinary rancor and divisiveness. 

At the matinee performance I attended, many audience members remarked on how good it felt to be inside an environment where all of that slipped away. I have a feeling that, if the Roundabout revives this again not that long from now—say, another four years, in the next election cycle—it will find a similarly rapturous reception for this “new”-old musical.

No comments: