Theater review: Shake off the blues with ‘Holiday Inn’
Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn
Based on the film from Universal Pictures
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge
Through Dec. 30
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn
By GWEN OREL
There’s something about Thanksgiving that makes old black-and-white movies feel so right. “Topper.” “Casablanca.” “My Man Godfrey.” “Holiday Inn.”
The 1942 film, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire about a song-and-dance man who chucks city lights for rural Connecticut (it was farmland then, see “All About Eve”), was turned into a Broadway musical a couple of years ago. It added a bunch of Irving Berlin songs from the catalog to a score already stuffed with those Berlin had written for the movie.
On Broadway, the show did not thrill.
It does not thrill in Millburn either.
Well, one number does, in fairness, and it literally stops the show: “Shaking the Blues Away,” involving jump ropes, juggling and terrific tapping.
But while the sweet story of “Holiday Inn,” in which Jim Hardy fails as a farmer and does what anyone would do: puts on a show! does not thrill: it soothes.
It’s like a black-and-white movie, without being one: it’s in color, the actors respond to the audience, the music is live.
And when one of the songs Berlin wrote for the film, sung here, is “White Christmas,” well, what could feel more right than that?
When Hardy (Jim Rodriguez) plays the first few notes on the piano, the whole audience sighed.
The show works better in Millburn than it did in the big apple. It works differently.
Paper Mill has been renovated recently. The seats are firm, the carpeting thick.
Families are there: little girls in their velvet dresses, moms in sparkly tops. As a family outing with that terrific Irving Berlin score, you have kind of a sure thing in “Holiday Inn.”
The plot has been changed just enough so that you won’t spend the whole show missing Crosby and Astaire, because let’s face it: Crosby and Astaire.
Here, the love interest Linda Mason (Hayley Podschun) is a local schoolteacher who grew up on the farm bought by Hardy, not a wannabe actress.
Ted (Jeff Kready), the dancer who “steals” Jim’s fiancée Lila (long-legged, sultry Paige Faure) is not so devious as in the film, just ambitious.
The show adds the character of Louise, a fix-it handywoman, neatly sidestepping the Mamie character. Ann Harada has the best voice in the whole cast (Harada was on Broadway as Christmas Eve in “Avenue Q,” among other roles) and steals every scene she’s in and a natural comic as well.
Rodriguez and Kready don’t sound different enough for the voice/dance divide they bicker about to work, though Kready taps terrifically.
Podschun has a sweet, strong voice and a likable presence.
The script has some wit: a radio commercial for a sinus medicine, “now with amphetamines!” is squarely for a contemporary audience. A child delivers Linda a pie on Thanksgiving, saying his parents feel sorry for her.
Director Gordon Greenberg, who co-wrote the book, sets the story in 1946 instead of in 1942. during the war, when the film is set. This was done to capture post-war optimism, Greenberg writes, but without any reference to the war everyone would literally just have lived through, it just seems odd.
Surely every single hoofer, not to mention Jim and Ted, would be vets — and would be older. And the July 4 song, “Song of Freedom,” about America as a place where all people can come to be free, and in which Ted dances with firecrackers, was added to the movie after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s a call to action song, and without the war, and in the context of 2018, it feels odd.
Even “White Christmas” has a wartime nostalgia to it.
But we already said the show is not the film. Crosby and Astaire and all.
Instead, the show offers colorful costumes by Alejo Vietti — special notice to the absurd Easter bonnets for “Easter Parade.”
We have mostly just-fair choreography from Denis Jones, until that “Shaking the Blues Away,” which thrills. It really does.
Like the lighted snowflakes and wreaths hanging from lampposts all over New Jersey, “Holiday Inn” is old-fashioned, and although not terribly exciting, it will sure lift your spirits.