By Ruth Ross
Take a “let’s put on a show” plot straight out of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland film, add lots of toe-tapping production numbers and top it off with more than 20 classic songs by Irving Berlin, and you have Paper Mill Playhouse’s holiday season production: the appropriately named Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn!
Based on a 1942 film starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, Paper Mill’s version replicates the 2016 Broadway production, including, among others, Gordon Greenberg’s book and direction, Denis Jones’ choreography, Alejo Vietti’s costumes and Anna Louizos’ scenic design, to great effect. True, the plot is predictably hokey, but the music and dancing more than make up for any deficiencies to give the audience something we need at the holiday season: pure entertainment!
Reminiscent of the later (1954) White Christmas, the plot centers around Broadway crooner Jim Hardy who, dumped by his girlfriend/partner Lila, leaves behind the hustle and bustle of show biz for the quiet life on Connecticut farm he’s just purchased to become a “gentleman farmer,” unaware that the poor soil produces nothing. To stave off the bank, Jim decides to turn the inn into a holidays-only live-entertainment venue (Above, the Fourth of July). Complications ensue when Jim falls for local talented schoolteacher Linda, and when his old partner hoofer Ted Hanover appears and sets his sights on Linda to his partner, Jim and Linda’s romantic relationship is endangered. In the end, Linda will have to decide what path to take.
Although Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn is classified as musical theater, the show’s success rests more on the music and dancing than character development and realistic plot. Truth be told, the actors don’t have to do more than be likeable, talented dancers and singers, and to that end, they make good with stock characters. Nicholas Rodriguez’s Jim Hardy sounds, at times, like Bing Crosby, the originator of the role. He sings very well, and his character’s earnestness is winning. As his nemesis Ted Hanover, Jeff Kready projects the right amount of cunning to arouse our distrust, but he sure can dance! Jordan Gelber is the quintessential theatrical agent, out for what’s best for him and not above engaging in dirty tricks to get what he wants. And Jian Harrell is adorable as bank messenger boy Charlie, often sounding more grown up than the adults he deals with!
As for the female actors, Paige Faure’s Lila Dixon (Above, with Jeff Kready) sounds very screechy, and her New Yawk accent is overpowering. It’s hard to discern what Jim sees in her as a life partner on a New England farm! Of course, that’s the way the part is written, and Faure inhabits it well. In contrast, Hayley Podschun’s Linda Mason (left) is sweet and charming, soft around the edges and ready for love. She has a good voice too, especially in the numbers involving Jim (“Let’s Take and Old-fashioned Walk,” for one).
But the powerhouse in the cast is the remarkable Ann Harada as the farm’s no-nonsense caretaker, Jim’s noodgy sidekick Louise (Above, with Nicholas Rodriguez). Whenever she appears, the show’s energy level shoots ‘way up; her singing, dancing (with buckets on her feet, no less) and comedic timing bring life to the show, especially evident in the rollicking “Shaking the Blues Away.” It’s a treat to watch her perform.
Director Greenberg keeps the proceedings humming along at a good clip so that we aren’t aware of any holes in the plot (like, how a failing farm can produce such glitzy entertainment). Music Director Shawn Gough’s orchestra provides terrific accompaniment to both songs and dances, without overpowering the singers (who are, of course, miked) while providing steady rhythm for the dancers. Denis Jones’s choreography includes lots of tap-dancing, so that it’s hard to keep your feet still through most of the show! Using interesting props (jump ropes, buckets), his dancers perform with agility and energy. It’s a real treat for those who love dancing and razzle-dazzle production numbers.
Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn is the perfect gift for the holiday season. While it may not have a deep or thought-provoking plot and nuanced characters (nor does it claim to), it does have heart-warming entertainment—in spades! So, bring the entire family to the Paper Mill Playhouse for the warm glow of holiday spirit. I promise it will relieve your stress, lift your spirits and imbue you with the holiday spirit.
Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through Sunday, December 30. For performance times, information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit www.PaperMill.org online.