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Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 6, 2016

Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge. Directed by Gordon Greenberg. Choreography by Denis Jones. Music Supervision and direction by Andy Einhorn. Set design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by Alejo Vietti. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by Keith Caggiano. Orchestrations by Larry Blank. Vocal and dance arrangements by Sam Davis. Additional dance and vocal arrangements by Bruce Pomahac. Music Coordinator John Miller. Hair & wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Make-up design by Joe Dulude II. Cast: Bryce Pinkham, Lora Lee Gayer, Megan Lawrence, Megan Sikora, with Corbin Bleu, and Lee Wilkof, with Malik Akil, Will Burton, Barry Busby, Darien Cargo, Caley Crawford, Jenifer Foote, Morgan Gao, Matt Meigs, Shina Ann Morris, Drew Redington, Catherine Ricafort, Amanda Rose, Jonalyn Saxer, Parker Slaybaugh, Samantha Sturm, Amy Van Norstrand, Travis Word-Osborne, Paige Williams, Victor Wisehart, Kevin Worley, Borris York.
Theatre: Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue

Corbin Bleu, Lora Lee Gayer, and Bryce Pinkham
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's tricky for a Broadway musical to be innovative, tough when the show is a comedy, and virtually impossible when it's constituted exclusively of pre-existing songs. So congratulations are due to the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Holiday Inn, which just opened at Studio 54. Despite doing absolutely nothing new, it's managed to push contemporary theatrical escapism to dizzying, unheard-of heights.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that; plenty of terrific shows from the past have been, at heart, larks just out to give you a good time. But usually they aim to give you an ounce or two of meat with your foot-tall mound of Cool Whip, whether it's Guys and Dolls with its zany (yet piercingly accurate) take on man-woman relationships, Little Me with its titanic leading-man star turn, Annie with its sly political subversion, or even Cats with its virtuosic feline choreography. After all, it's not easy to swallow sugar for two hours straight without feeling ill. But Holiday Inn, which features a book by Gordon Greenberg (who also directed) and Chad Hodge based on the 1942 film, doesn't mind. Its selling point is its cornucopia of golden Irving Berlin compositions, some from the movie, some not, and delivering that is all that matters.

So try to forget—it won't be hard—the dopey story Greenberg and Hodge have cooked up. I suppose it's a smidgen better than the boilerplate let's-put-on-a-show-biz film plot, but it retains many of its basic details. Jim Hardy (Bryce Pinkham), Ted Hanover (Corbin Bleu), and Lila Dixon (Megan Sikora) are a Manhattan nightclub song-and-dance trio who break up when Jim proposes to longtime girlfriend Lila and they plot to move to a farm in Midville, Connecticut. But when Ted persuades Lila to make one more road trip, Jim heads up to Midville alone to prepare the farm for his further-down-the-road nuptials. While there, he runs into the wise-cracking caretaker, Louise (Megan Lawrence), and Linda Mason (Lora Lee Gayer), the pretty woman whose family use to own the house. Oh, and did I mention that Linda used to be a performer, too?

There's little point in recapping further, as you can likely guess the strategies they developing for paying the bills on the falling-apart farmhouse (that just happens to have tons of rooms). Nor is there much challenge in working out what happens when Ted re-enters the picture, and, despite a complication or two, whether all this is going to end happily. This is not a book that cares much about the destination or the trip, provided you have fun along the way. (There are nods toward class consciousness issues, but that's about as "deep" as any of this gets.)

Bryce Pinkham and Megan Lawrence
Photo by Joan Marcus

Much like the film, it's just an excuse for showcasing a bevy of themed Berlin tunes coordinated with the performances that occur at the renamed farmhouse (not coincidentally, it's identical to the title). These include, naturally, the timeless and flawless "White Christmas" (the original movie introduced the song), plus other numbers that, though lesser, are undeniably enjoyable in their own right: "Let's Start the New Year Right," "Be Careful, It's My Heart," "Easter Parade," and "Song of Freedom." They're joined by the era-straddlingly incongruous likes of "Blue Skies," "Heat Wave," "It's a Lovely Day Today," and more, which are shoehorned into the proceedings with the expected utter indifference toward whether any of it makes sense.

Does it matter? Only if you're looking for dramatic cohesion. But if you can set that aside, you will have a grand old time on the most superficial of levels. I didn't need to be thrilled with the evening as a whole to smile at the Jim-Ted-Lila mashup of "Steppin' Out With My Baby" and "I'll Capture Your Heart. "Cheek to Cheek," alternately gentle and frantic for narrative reasons it's best for all concerned I don't delve into, is a delight. "Easter Parade" is wonderful by nature of its existence, and its inherent charm was wryly elevated with Alejo Vietti's elaborate creamy-pastel costumes. And choreographer Denis Jones's staging for "Shaking the Blues Away," involving stagefuls of leaping tap steps and Christmas-decoration-rope-jumping, is, as much as I hate to admit it, a well-deserved showstopper.

Greenberg has assembled and organized the pieces of this puzzle with considerable showmanship. The greeting-card Studio System sets by Anna Louizos, as well as their accordant lighting by Jeff Croiter, are beautiful, too, and musical director Andy Einhorn leads an energetic band playing lively and appropriate orchestrations by Larry Blank that are only marred by their mystifying, near-complete lack of strings (a bass is it). Bleu, a High School Musical veteran who was also a fine replacement in In the Heights (and Godspell, though I missed him there), is a fleet and fitting choice for Ted. As an agent with a thread-thin relationship to the action, Lee Wilkof is a treat, and his delivery one of the most groan-inducing jokes I've ever heard on Broadway is an object lesson in making the most from the least. And Morgan Gao, as a know-it-all kid who shows up everywhere for, er, reasons, is appealing.

Pinkham, though, is not an easy fit for romantic lead Jim, and imbues his performance throughout with an ironic detachment that's constantly fighting with the too-earnest writing. And Lawrence is working perhaps too hard to make second-banana Louise into a showcase; the part just isn't written well enough for that. But nothing gets in the way of Gayer, who's not making her Broadway debut as Linda (she was Young Sally in the 2011 Follies and Tonia in last year's short-lived Doctor Zhivago), but is so vibrant and bewitching as a wallflower made glamour girl, and pours so much soul into what she does (it's most evident in her yearning "Nothing More to Say"), she's all but positioning herself to skyrocket to an incredible career.

Yes, all shows committed to purveying empty calories should do so as competently as this one does, and its verve makes it utterly unhatable. But I can't help wishing those involved had wanted to do more with such tantalizing raw components. Catalog shows can be daring, even within a generally risk-free framework: Crazy for You, a 1992 Gershwin spin on this formula, had a three-front attack from Ken Ludwig, Mike Ockrent, and star-to-be Susan Stroman, and dazzled with its (relative) defiance of formula while maintaining impressive fidelity to its various pieces of source material. Everything in it was ancient, but felt—and still feels—brand new.

Such ideas are anathema to this outing, as, really, are ideas at all. Not that you can get too worked up about what you're missing, or anything else, once those songs start flying at you. Even so many decades after their writing, they remain good enough to, yes, shake away the blues and usher in blue skies. And, to quote another song, in them there's "plenty to be thankful for." But couldn't we be just as thankful if the musical containing those songs did more to engage our minds instead of insisting they be shut down? The dust on Holiday Inn is never thicker than it is around that particular notion.

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