Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Two Degrees


Cast of Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn
Photo by Tom Wallace
The show on view at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' main stage is not just anyone's Holiday Inn; it decidedly is Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn. That is the show's official title, and it feels appropriate. Although the stage show, like the 1942 film on which it is based, uses the device of a farmhouse turned into a theater where song and dance spectacles are staged whenever—and only whenever—a holiday rolls round, and it includes two of our most ubiquitous holiday tunes, "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade," the show is not about the holidays. It is about the songwriting gifts of Irving Berlin, one of America's greatest tunesmiths, credited as such by the likes of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Walter Cronkite. Berlin, a Jewish Russian immigrant, composed over 900 songs in his lifetime, from his first published song at age 19 in 1907, "Marie from Sunny Italy," to his first huge hit four years later, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which created a worldwide dance sensation, to a song considered by many to be America's second national anthem, "God Bless America," to a song that has come to epitomize the entertainment industry, "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Among the classics, in addition to "White Christmas," and "Easter Parade", being sung eight times a week at Chanhassen are "Blue Skies," "It's a Lovely Day Today," "Shaking the Blues Away," "Heat Wave," and, for my money one of them most romantic tunes ever written, "Cheek to Cheek." Not only are these and thirteen other Berlin songs being sung by a cast possessing great pipes, but most of them break out into exhilarating dance routines, choreographed to a fare the well by Tamara Kangas Erickson. The whole affair is dressed up in Rich Hamson's costumes, designed to bring back the glamour of old time show business with style and wit, and surrounded by Nayna Ramey's versatile settings that smoothly sweep us between the mix of homespun and showbiz locales in which the story takes place.

Ah, yes, the story—back to that farm house cum music hall. Holiday Inn opens with the trio of Jim Hardy (Michael Gruber), Lila Dixon (Jessica Fredrickson), and Ted Hanover (Tony Vierling) completing their run at a New York club. Jim is the act's crooner, Ted the dancer supreme, and Lila does a bit of both, with a lot of sex appeal. Jim announces he is giving up show business for a settled down life and has bought a farm in Midville, Connecticut. He asks Lila to marry him and share the simple life, but she isn't about to give up the bright lights, and takes off with Ted on a six month tour, while Jim moves to the country and discovers that farming isn't all that easy. A wisecracking fix-it lady named Louise (Michelle Barber) comes to the aid of Jim's property, and a demure Midville school teacher, Linda Mason (Ann Michels), provides first aid for his heart. And, what a surprise, Linda is quite the song and dance gal, too. The farm is a bust, but with all this song and dance talent, Louise for the comedy bits, and Jim's old Broadway crowd happy to spend holidays in the country, before you know it Holiday Inn is up, running, and drawing crowds.

There are complications, of course, but we know that nothing is going to keep this angel cake of a narrative from arriving at a blissfully happy ending. Mainly, it is a framework upon which to hang the music, and for that it works like a charm. Actually, the movie was originally conceived as a stage revue, using the holiday theme as a unifying motif for Berlin's songs. It was to be a successor to his hit As Thousands Cheer, which used the sections of a daily newspaper as its framing device. In fact, two songs in Holiday Inn were first heard in As Thousands Cheer: "Easter Parade," representing the society page; and "Heat Wave," a weather report with a Latin flair. A movie producer at Paramount got wind of Berlin's stage show idea and took it on as a film property for Bing Crosby, providing that a bit of plot could be worked in.

The songs, dances and design provide the basis for a dandy show, but it is the great cast assembled by director Michael Brindisi that makes it blast off. Brindisi allows each of his talented leads their turns in the spotlight, seamlessly adding the ensemble as a booster to put a well-launched number into orbit. All of the principals and most of the ensemble members are veterans of Chanhassen, as are the design and production team, lending the enterprise the feeling of an enormously talented family getting together to put on a show.

Michael Gruber pours his heart out in song, making Jim's longing for a settled-down life sound like the best of all possible dreams. His naïve yearning for simplicity in "The Little Things in Life" is followed up by exuberant optimism in "Blue Skies," and he conveys a bit of desperate cheerfulness trying to convince Lila "It's a Lovely Day Today." When he sings, with genuine modesty, his new song, "White Christmas," it's like a gold coin is being minted before our eyes, and his "Be Careful, It's My Heart" is close to heartbreaking. Gruber and Ann Michels, as Linda, draw the implied romance out of "Let's Take an Old Fashioned Walk."

Michels is swell throughout, convincing as the small-town school teacher who has been hiding her light under a bushel. She charmingly feigns happiness in "Marching Along with Time" and makes a sizzling partner to Tony Vierling's Ted in "Cheek to Cheek." Vierling dances up a storm in "Heat Wave" (with Jessica Fredrickson's Lila), "Your Easy to Dance With," and "Let's Say It with Firecrackers." In the latter, he taps away while joyfully seeming to toss lit firecrackers hither and yon. Michelle Barber deliciously serves up the ham as Louise, and delivers a raise-the-roof "Shaking the Blues Away." Scott Blackburn delightfully rolls the dollar signs in his eyes as theatrical agent Danny, and Kai Hirata (alternating in the role with Will Spangrud) is a charmer as Charlie Winslow, one of Linda's young students who routinely delivers bad news to Jim in his after school job as errand boy for the local bank.

The ensemble carries a lot of the load in Holiday Inn and they never let us down, with winning ensemble song and dance accompaniments to over half of the show's song, including a truly remarkable bit with jump ropes during the "Shaking the Blues Away" dance break. One ensemble member making his Chanhassen debut, at least on stage, is retired Minneapolis Star Tribune theater critic Graydon Royce, seeming to enjoy the limelight in a couple of non-singing cameo spots. The music sounds pitch perfect performed by a brassy band conducted by music director Andy Kust.

Holiday Inn does not illuminate American history, explore cultural themes, or deal with deep psychological issues. Its characters are ridiculously transparent and its conflicts come with built-in solutions. It will not provide an intensely emotional experience—unless you can't keep yourself from tearing up at the happy ending you saw coming a mile away. However, if you are looking for sheer entertainment, Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn has it all. The blazing star performances, beautiful singing, powerhouse choreography, eye-popping costumes; and those songs—dear old favorites and rediscovered prizes—will sweep away the troubles of the day, at least for a few hours, and leave you feeling glad you woke up on this planet.

Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn, through February 23, 2019, at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, 501 West 78th Street, Chanhassen MN. Tickets including dinner and show: $66.00- $91.00. Show-only tickets, 10 or fewer days before performance: $51.00 - $76.00. Check website for senior (age 55+) and student (ages 5 - 17) discounts. For tickets call 952-934-1525 or go to www.chanhassendt.com.

Music and Lyrics: Irving Berlin; Book: Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge; Orchestrations: Larry Blank; Vocal and Dance Arrangements: Sam Davis; Additional Vocal and Dance Arrangements: Bruce Pomahac; Director: Michael Brindisi; Choreographer: Tamara Kangas Erickson; Music Director and Conductor: Andy Kust; Set Design: Nayna Ramey; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Sue Ellen Berger; Sound Design: Russ Haynes; Hair and Make-up Design: Paul Bigot; Production Stage Manager: Dan Foss.

Cast: Michelle Barber (Louise), Scott Blackburn (Danny), Jessica Fredrickson (Lila Dixon), Michael Gruber (Jim Harding), Kai Hirata * (Charlie Winslow), Ann Michels (Linda Mason), Will Spangrud * (Charlie Winslow), Tony Vierling (Ted Hanover).

Ensemble: Mathias Anderson, Rush Benson, Tommy Benson, Nicole Renee Chapman, Renee Guittar, Nicki Kromminga Hill, Shinah Hey, Mark King, Aleks Knezevich, Joey Miller, Andrea Mislan, Adam Moen, Kasano Mwanza, Tod Peterson, Graydon Royce, Laura Rudolph, Brian Saice, Alyssa Seifert Thomas Schumacher, Janet Hayes Trow and Maura White.

*Alternating performances


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