It is possible to enjoy Holiday Inn, subtitled “The New Irving Berlin Musical,” although there is little new about it. The Broadway adaptation of the 1942 Crosby/Astaire movie features a hard-working, elegantly costumed cast in one pleasantly diverting musical number after another. But it’ll help to check your sense and sensibility in the coatroom.
More production photographs at NewYorkTheater.me
The film, despite a dopey story and some cringe worthy stereotyping, still has three things going for it:
- the spectacular tap-dancing of Fred Astaire
- the warm crooning of Bing Crosby
- the catchy songs of Irving Berlin. The thin plot, which combines a muddled love triangle with the unlikely tale of a song-and-dance man who opens an inn in Connecticut that presents shows on holidays, gives Berlin the excuse to offer a score of holiday music. There are songs for everything from New Year’s Eve to Valentine’s Day to the Fourth of July. This was the film that introduced the evergreen “White Christmas.”
You can take the movie out for free from your local library, or rent it online for $3.99.
The staged Holiday Inn, well-received when it debuted at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House in 2014, has transferred with a whole new cast to the Roundabout’s Studio 54, where this non-profit theatrical empire is charging a top ticket price of $152.
Bryce Pinkham, who made a splash as the murderer in A Gentleman’s Guide Love & Murder, has the Bing Crosby role of Jim, the newly minted innkeeper. Corbin Bleu, who is best-known for the three High School Musical films when he was a teenager, has the Fred Astaire role of Ted, Jim’s song-and-dance partner and romantic rival. Let’s be blunt: Pinkham and Bleu are no Crosby and Astaire. But let’s also be fair: Bleu’s performance is a revelation. If he is not as spectacular as Astaire, he is irrefutably an accomplished dancer; and if he’s not much called on to demonstrate his acting chops in this show, he is an attractively stylish leading man. The child actor has grown up.
Megan Sikora is fine as Lila, who is Ted and Jim’s song-and-dance partner, and the apparent object of affection for both of them (It’s unclear whether Ted has any actual romantic interest in Lila, or just sees her as his ticket to Hollywood.) Lora Lee Gayer is also fine as Linda, the sweet Connecticut schoolteacher who sells her family’s house to Jim for the inn and who in short order replaces Lila as the target of Ted and Jim’s rivalry.
The leading ladies don’t especially shine in part because these are old-fashioned roles. It is bracing to realize that the “updated” book by director Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge has turned Linda even more of an outdated archetype than she was in the movie. Initially in the movie, Linda is as ambitious as Lila; she craftily maneuvers her way into meeting Ted in hopes of launching her show business career. Now she’s become a virginal innocent, who never even considered a show business career even though she can sing and dance well enough to excite Hollywood interest.
Indeed, there are other changes from the movie that add up to a complicated lesson in gender and racial cultural politics. Seriously, there is a term paper just waiting for an enterprising undergraduate, exploring what the creative team apparently considers more enlightened stereotyping. The original movie featured a wise black housekeeper who gives Jim a pep talk to go after the woman he loves. Granted, the housekeeper, portrayed by Louise Beavers, was named Mamie, and her two children were used as comic relief. The film’s reflection of the boorish racial attitudes of the era reaches its nadir with the song “Abraham” about Abraham Lincoln for Lincoln’s Birthday, which is sung with everybody in blackface. Not surprisingly, that song has been cut from the stage musical.
But the stage musical also completely ditches the black housekeeper and her children. Now, Megan Lawrence portrays a new character named Louise, a white woman, who calls herself a “fix it man,” serving as a handyman around the house (not a housekeeper!) She is the one who gives Jim the pep talk about love. She also supplies the comic relief, which mostly means dressing in silly costumes in many of the production numbers. But in one inexplicable and tasteless scene played for laughs, Ted, after a drunken bender, wakes up in the morning in bed with Louise. Both are dressed, Louise in unflattering pajamas.
TED: Did we…?
LOUISE: Not on your life, kid.
Why not? Is the creative team hinting that “fix it man” Louise is a lesbian? In any case, she is even more de-sexed than Mamie, who at least had children.
If that’s not bizarre enough, Louise, a Connecticut local, sings “Shakin the Blues Away” with the lyrics about “an old superstition down South” and “doing like the voodoos do.”
The stage musical also has added the character of a precocious boy named Charlie, portrayed by 11-year-old Morgan Gao, who is working for a local bank delivering dunning notices to Jim for unpaid taxes and a late mortgage. Now it’s possible that Charlie Winslow is not explicitly meant to be Asian-American; he is simply portrayed by an Asian-American actor. (The production has several examples of color-blind casting.) But did no one on the creative team think out how loaded it is to make an Asian-American kid a budding financier?
If that’s not enough, on Thanksgiving, Charlie delivers a pie to Linda, from his parents, “who feel sorry for you…because you’re all alone on Thanksgiving. No family. No children. No prospects.”
Linda replies: “I like being independent and level-headed.”
“My mom calls that a spinster.”
One can try to overlook such assaults on current sensibilities for the bliss of a 13-piece orchestra (plus “synth programmer”) performing Irving Berlin’s melodies. The stage musical, half an hour longer than the movie, shoehorns in Berlin hits that were not in the film and have nothing to do with the holiday theme, among them Blue Skies, Cheek to Cheek, Stepping Out With My Baby, Heat Wave, It’s a Lovely Day Today (and the aforementioned Shakin the Blues Away.) But even here the pleasure is occasionally muted; this old-fashioned musical insists on new-fangled arrangements, some of which make these lovely tunes…less lovely.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the audience surrounding me at the performance of Holiday Inn I attended, I suspect mine will be a minority opinion. I concede that choreographer Denis Jones and costume designer Alejo Vietti do some admirable heavy lifting to try to make Holiday Inn land as light as perfumed air. There is one moment, though – really just an instant — that crystallized my view of Holiday Inn as too much of a calculated almost desperate affair: A performer wears a lampshade on her head.
Holiday Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical is on stage at Roundabout’s Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street, east of Eighth Avenue, New York, NY, 10019 ) through January 15, 2017.
Holiday Inn. Book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge. Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Music orchestrated by Larry Blank. Musical director and conductor Andy Einhorn. Directed by Gordon Greenberg. Choreographed by Denis Jones. Scenic Design by Anna Louizos; Costume Design by Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter; Sound Design by Keith Caggiano.
Featuring Bryce Pinkham as Jim, Corbin Bleu as Ted, Lora Lee Gayer as Linda, Megan Lawrence as Louise, Megan Sikora as Lila, Lee Wilkof as Danny, Morgan Gao as Charlie, Malik Akil, Will Burton, Barry Busby (also associate choreographer), Darien Crago, Caley Crawford, Jenifer Foote , Matt Meigs , Shina Ann Morris , Catherine Ricafort, Drew Redington, Amanda Rose, Jonalyn Saxer, Parker Slaybaugh, Samantha Sturm , Amy Van Norstrand, Travis Ward-Osborne, Paige Williams, Victor Wisehart, Kevin Worley, Borris York. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell