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Theatre in Review: Holiday Inn (Roundabout Theatre Company/Studio 54)

Corbin Bleu, Lora Lee Gayer. Photo: Joan Marcus

Holiday Inn arrives with such a winning smile and lively spring in its step that I'm sorry to say that it doesn't put one in more of a holiday mood. But in adapting the 1942 film, a classic of its kind, to the stage, its creative team has preserved everything that was weak about it without finding many equivalents for the element that assures its annual presence on TCM and revival house screens. Adaptations are supposed to improve on their source material; this one has got it the other way around.

Even for a lightheaded Paramount musical of the period, the premise of Holiday Inn was a baffler. Jim Hardy, Ted Hanover, and Lila Dixon constitute an up-and-coming song-and-dance team; just when it looks like the big time is beckoning at last, Jim bails, announcing that he intends to lead the life of a Connecticut farmer. When the place he has purchased turns out to be encumbered with loads of debt and his agricultural skills are shown to be of the brown-thumb variety, Jim proposes recouping his losses by turning the place into an inn that will be open only on the major holidays. Let's just say that this not a business model likely to turn up in the case histories of Harvard's B-School. The book, by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, actually doubles down on the premise, making it even sillier: the inn's holiday-only schedule is designed to accommodate the work schedules of Jim's Broadway gypsy friends -- who drop in so regularly you'd think rural Connecticut was the last stop on the A train -- and who are only available on holidays to appear in the revues Jim plans to stage there. This is Hollywood foolishness served straight, no chaser, without a drop of irony: When someone actually says, "And together we could put on a show!" it isn't a joke.

This is the sort of nonsensical hook that audiences will forgive if the rest of the show clicks. For example, the film had Bing Crosby (among other things, introducing "White Christmas") and Fred Astaire, who, in addition to their unparalleled song-and-dance skills, were masters of throwaway comic style. In the hands of Greenberg and Hodge, however, Jim is a bit of a stiff, always harping on the virtues of the simple life and taking forever to make a move on the girl he loves; it doesn't help that not until the end of the first act does he come up with the Holiday Inn idea. Bryce Pinkham long ago proved his high comedy skills, but here he has so little to work with that Jim never makes a serious claim on our sympathies. Pinkham is, however, much luckier than Corbin Bleu. The former High School Musical star shows some serious tap-dancing chops and when he gets near a comic bit of business, he pulls it off with charm to spare. But he basically has no character to play, dropping out of the storyline for so long that when he returns it's hard to see him as a threat to Jim's romantic happiness.

The conflict between two leading men who, in their own films, usually got the girl is part of the fun of the cinematic Holiday Inn, which features in Marjorie Reynolds' Linda Mason a love interest genuinely torn between romance and a successful show-business career. Greenberg and Hodge have rewritten Linda into one of the drabbest musical comedy heroines in recent memory -- a Broadway also-ran who nursed her farmer father to the end and now toils as a spinster schoolteacher, cooking meals for one accompanied by a good book. She desperately needs some grit, some gumption, and a number in which she can really sparkle, thus putting her in real danger of running off with Ted. Lora Lee Gayer applies thick layers of charm to her portrayal of Linda, but her two main numbers -- the bleak, if up-tempo, "Marching Along With Time" and the crestfallen "Nothing More to Say" -- do nothing to liven things up.

Without a potent triangle at its center, Holiday Inn becomes a string of production numbers, some of them admittedly staged with considerable verve and wit. The score is a bouquet of Irving Berlin evergreens, blending songs from the film with such classics as "Steppin' Out With My Baby," "Cheek to Cheek," and "It's a Lovely Day Today." (Gone, presumably confined to history's dustbin, is one of the film's numbers, "Abraham," a blackface tribute to the sixteenth president.) "Blue Skies" is amusingly staged as a moving-in number for Jim, assisted by his chorus-dancer friends and "You're Easy to Dance With" is turned into a series of comic auditions, with each lady of the chorus avidly vying to become Ted's next partner. The biggest showstopper is "Shaking the Blues Away," rendered as a Christmas season revel with chorus girls in tutus made of wreaths, a dance break performed with milk cans, and a series of garlands used as jump ropes. All of them benefit from Larry Blank's swingy orchestrations, aided by the vocal and dance arrangements of Sam Davis and Bruce Pomahac.

Under Greenberg's direction, everyone in the highly professional cast does their best with punchlines that could use some more punch. As the starstruck Lila ("I've always wanted to be normal. After I'm famous"), Megan Sikora is such a pleasure to watch that it's a shame she vanishes from the plot for so long. Lee Wilkof, as everyone's favorite agent, cracks wise with such aplomb -- in Connecticut, he warns Jim, "You'll end up wearing plaid and repressing your feelings" -- that he should have been given more and better material. Morgan Gao is fun as the local pint-sized busybody. As Louise, the handywoman who comes with the farm -- a role oddly written more or less as a butch lesbian -- Megan Lawrence successfully channels the spirit of screwball comedy, making the biggest impression and appearing to have a high old time throughout.

Anna Louizos' scenery, blending various farm locations with a number of sketchily rendered nightclubs, is not at her most stylish; at times, I wondered if she had been hampered by budgetary concerns. She does have some fun with various holiday backdrops and a highly accurate-to-the-period film sequence depicting the purple Hollywood epic based on Jim's story. Alejo Vietti's costumes make good use of the tailored look of the period -- the action has been moved ahead a few years, to 1946 -- in ladies' suits, as well as the puffed shoulders and sweepingly long skirts then popular in formal gowns. The men's tailoring is equally well done, allowing Pinkham and Bleu to look their best. Jeff Croiter's lighting moves confidently from understated white washes featured in the book scenes to splashy, colorful looks for the musical numbers. Keith Caggiano's sound design is generally clean and clear; he gets extra points (along, no doubt, with the wardrobe department) for the well-concealed mics.

There's always room for a Broadway musical in the grand Broadway manner, even a synthetic like Holiday Inn, if the elements are good enough. This one has the manner, but there's an element of personality missing. This isn't Broadway like it used to be; it's Broadway sort of like it used to be, a collection of classic elements lacking a strong point of view. If it's not a holiday turkey, neither is it the gift package you've been praying for. -- David Barbour

(11 October 2016)

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