The gifted director Michael Blakemore once said, “When the curtain goes up, the audience is in trouble.” What he meant was that we out front want to know what we’re in for in the 2 hours traffic coming up on stage, and it’s up to the creators of the show to put us straight — quickly. One example of how this works out well is the current Roundabout Theatre production of Holiday Inn: The New Irving Berlin Musical.
You might well ask “How can it be new when Irving Berlin has been dead for 27 years, and this current work is based on a film he scored in 1942.” The answer is the new creative team has used the film, which starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in a unique public appearance, only as a jumping off spot from which they have carved what is indeed a delightful new show, using many songs from the Berlin catalog, some from the film itself, combined with a story that pays respect to the screenplay once written by Claude Binyon and an adaptation by Elmer Rice. Mark Sandrich directed, and the film was a popular success.
The musical playing at Studio 54 is now set in 1946-47 and to get us off on the right track, it begins with a bang up song and dance performed to a faretheewell by three of its bright young stars. Right off the bat, we can see this show will not be about two middle aged entertainers, both looking for partners on and offstage. No, with the use of “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” followed by “I’ll Capture Your Heart,” we meet Jim, Ted and Lila, in an arrangement that is faithful to the big band Swing period, but with nimble choreography by Denis Jones, it becomes very much a “now’ musical” right up there with Rent, Hamilton, On Your Feet!, The Book of Mormon, and other hits from later periods.
It also introduces us to three sparkling musical theatre personalities, who bring a very different energy to the story as well. Bryce Pinkham and Corbin Bleu bring original talents to the two leading characters, and Megan Sikora in a platinum wig that first makes her seem a younger sister to Miss Adelaide in 1950’s Guys and Dolls.
All three have been seen in other productions, and Mr. Pinkham has won Tony Nominations for the musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and the play The Heidi Chronicles. Mr. Bleu has an equally envious list of important work in theatre and TV, but it’s here that all of them burst upon us as though they’d finally found the right time and place for recognition to come big time. Lora Lee Gayor completes the quartet of leading players who sing, dance and act out the boy meet girl, boy loses girl, and of course ‘boy gets girl’ plot that will fill the two acts.
But this charismatic quartet is surrounded by the feisty Megan Lawrence as the handyman/woman who rocks the stage when she lets loose with “Shaking the Blues Away.” Lee Wilkof as the loudmouth agent with the funny lines, young Morgan Gao as the wise little Charlie Winslow, who as the eleven year old gofer tells the star that “one day you’ll be working for me” each add to the merriment.
The story of course is a familiar backstage and country Connecticut love story, structurally in the tradition of the two-level romances found in other musicals of the period. Oklahoma!, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, Call Me Madam all have them. But Director Gordon Greenberg and his co-book writer Chad Hodge, and most certainly choreographer Denis Jones, have avoided all things familiar in their various departments and have certainly turned this old thing into something new again. They are aided as well by the dazzling gown designs of Alejo Vietti and the set design by Anna Louizos (with particularly effective backdrops) and all of the music and sound staff that have kept the evening alive at all times.
The entire show kept reminding me of that line from 42nd Street: “the two most glorious words in the English Language are ‘musical comedy.’ If there was ever a slight bit of shakiness in the second act plot line, I was more than willing to give the show that chance to catch its breath. Certainly the cast played as though every moment hit home, and sure enough, it found footing once again with the final reprise of ‘White Christmas.” And during the grand finale, where the entire ensemble of absolutely astonishingly able singers and dancers took a feel good series of bows, it caused a very real need for all of us to rise to the occasion.
If you think a lighthearted romp would be of use to you, hop on over to Holiday Inn on 54th Street for a spring tonic in the fall.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.