(l to r) Nicholas Rodriguez and Ann Harada in ‘Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn.’ (Photo: Jerry Dalia)
By Ryan Leeds
If Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn had opened as a never-seen-before, completely original show when it first appeared on Broadway in 2016, it probably would have been laughed out of the theatre by audiences and critics alike. The “aw-shucks, golly-gee” sensibility that it holds was so pervasive in musical movies of the 40s and 40s but no longer flies with most contemporary audiences craving edgier fare. If however, you visit the Paper Mill Playhouse through December 30 and can appreciate whimsy through the lens of nostalgia, your cup of holiday cheer will runneth over.
The 1942 Oscar-winning movie starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Marjorie Reynolds was, in fact, revisited and repackaged a couple of years ago as The New Irving Berlin Musical. Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge adapted the material and stuffed a bounty of already existent Berlin melodies into the mix.
It’s a solid choice for Paper Mill. Given their proclivity to stage a holiday show through November and December, this is safe, smile-inducing family fare.
Producing Artistic Director Mark Hoebee has secured the same director, Greenberg, and choreographer Denis Jones for this wafer-thin story about good old-fashioned show business.
Jim Hardy (Nicholas Rodriguez) decides that he is done with the bright lights of the city. His club act with Ted Hanover (Jeff Kready) and Lila Dixon (Paige Faure) has lost its luster. Instead, he wants the quiet life on a rural farm in Connecticut and, as fate would have it in a romantic comedy, Lila wants Ted.
Man gets woman. Man loses woman to his friend. Man meets another woman, Linda Mason (Hayley Podschun). Mason’s family used to own the farm that was recently sold to Hardy, and she still resides in the same town as a teacher — a teacher who is mightily talented! Would you expect anything less from a leading lady in a splashy musical?
Hardy decides to stage elaborate holiday-themed shows in the middle of the nutmeg state and more hijinks ensue before they all live happily ever after.
The plot is completely implausible, inane, and predictable.
So why go?
For starters, the score. Irving Berlin’s best-known songs are scattered generously throughout two and a half hours: “Blue Skies,” “Heat Wave,” “Happy Holiday,” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” are all sung with classic finesse. Some of Berlin’s more obscure tunes are included as well, but even those invoke a spirit of warmth and American pride.
“White Christmas” is probably the most recognizable. Podschun and Rodriguez sing the beloved classic near the end of the first act and reprise it again in Act II. Podschun posseses both a vintage look and a voice that is pleasing. Rodriguez, on the other hand, has an uncontrolled vibrato and scoops into every note. Though his tone is rich, his vocal technique tends to grate on the ears.
Kready fares much better and is a true song and dance man. He shines at the top of Act II with the tap-heavy “You’re Easy to Dance With.”
Speaking of dancing, that’s another reason to check into this inn. Jones’ choreography is spectacular. His finest work can be seen in “Shaking the Blues Away,” a crowd-pleasing showstopper that can only be seen to be believed.
Alejo Vietti’s costumes are dazzling and brilliant. If season subscribers to Paper Mill are wondering where their dough is going this season, there’s a good chance they went to the costume shop. Mr. Vietti is giving them their money’s worth. In some scenes, this cast of over 25 is decked out in full festive regalia for a single song. “Easter Parade” in particular offers the most lavish costumes.
Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn is the type of show that should not be analyzed. Instead, it should be consumed as a form of total escapism. Every year, theaters around the world stage A Christmas Carol. Don’t get me wrong—the Dickens’ story is a tried and true classic for a reason. But Paper Mill has something different to offer. Sure, it may be frivolous and frothy, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to put your brain on cruise control and enjoy the sleigh ride.
Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Through December 31
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or Facebook.