By Barry Reszel
If we’re in a specific age of musicals, and this reviewer would argue that we are, it’s a time when once-popular movies (musical or not) are the highlighted song and dance titles headed for the Big White Way. Just think, Pretty Woman, Tootsie and Mean Girls have all premiered in the past year, and the Wikipedia page dedicated to this genre weighs in at about 200 titles and counting (you may see them here).
All of which makes it particularly shocking that it took 74 years for the star-studded (Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds) Holiday Inn to finally become Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical and make it to Broadway (2016). And the show wasn’t professionally staged at all until 2014.
Now two years after its short but well-received Broadway seasonal run and a 2017 Tony nomination for choreography, that choreographer, Denis Jones, both directs and choreographs the splendid Marriott Theatre production sure to warm the hearts of Chicagoland musical theatre patrons old and young throughout the holidays.
In short, it was worth the wait.
Those countless retreads of White Christmas, Wonderful Life, 34th Street, Christmas Story, Christmas Carol and Elf are cute, nostalgic and overdone. Holiday Inn is a vibrant sashay into a simpler time, a holiday gift forcing patrons to set aside their lives for just a short while, giving themselves over to dreams, hopes and the unbelievable legs of an ensemble that makes this the hottest dance show of the season. Jazz hands recommended.
It’s all excellent entertainment, but Jones’ hoofers performing his gorgeously complex dance steps (and who also happen to knock out some tremendous four-part harmonies of Irving Berlin hits) are the ones who make this production truly special. These magnificent performers include Aaron Burr, Joe Capstick, Annie Jo Ermel, Alejandro Fonseca, Adam LaSalle, Jarran Muse, Tony Neidenbach, Madison Piner, Liam Quealy, Collin Sanderson, Laura Savage, Amanda Tanguay, Elizabeth Telford, Bethany Tesarck, Diana Vaden and Jessica Wolfrum.
There are so many similarities between Holiday Inn and White Christmas, starting with the title song of the latter, first performed in the former. Add to that a professional song and dance duo with an ability to get an ensemble into a remote space for an old pal, an inn on the verge of collapse and a schmaltzy love story. Holiday Inn‘s original screenplay by Claude Binyon and Elmer Rice was reworked into the stage libretto by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, who added to the Berlin soundtrack with other hits by the storied composer while keeping the basic plot line. And believe it or not, the plot works better than that of White Christmas, at least on the live stage.
The story is of a Connecticut country inn bought by a show biz dropout in search of a balanced life who finds it with the love of the inn’s former owner and an acquiescence to the business he knows best, but only on holidays. Read more details here. As this holiday show is really a holidays show, patrons are treated with myriad Berlin hits including “Heat Wave,” “Blue Skies,” “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Shaking the Blues Away,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas,.” among others
Between showstoppers making audience members want to jump from their seats and join in (“Shaking the Blues Away” and “Let’s Say it With Firecrackers” to name but two) they notice an explosion of colorful, purposeful costumes (kudos to Costume Designer Sally Dolembo), terrific media (Anthony Churchill), elegantly mobile scenic design (Scott Davis) and expert lighting (Jesse Klug).
Back onstage, terrifically talented Michael Mahler as composer Jim Hardy, who needs a break from show business, shows off his own piano skills (starting with the overture) along with his superior acting and singing chops. This songbook particularly suits Mahler’s range, and it’s hard to think of a song in which he can sound better than the lovely duet, “Let’s Take and Old-Fashioned Walk,” that he performs with love interest Linda Mason, played gorgeously by Johanna McKenzie Miller. The pair is joined by Broadway veteran (Hello Dolly) Will Burton as the best friend who seems to steal Jim’s girlfriends. A superior dance talent, Burton particularly shines in “You’re Easy to Dance With” and “Let’s Say it With Firecrackers.” Kimberly Immanuel, a star of Drury Lane’s magnetic 42nd Street a year ago, returns to Chicagoland in her Marriott debut as Jim’s girlfriend and stage partner, Lila Dixon, who keeps her eye on a prize other than love and contentment. Her vocals in the first half of act one help set the stage for an overall impeccable vocal performance by this entire cast.
Three other roles in this Holiday Inn prove to be delightful scene stealers. Patrick Scott McDermott and Preetish Chakraborty alternate as the 10-year-old Connecticut smartmouth neighbor whose grown-up observations and terrific timing are simply hilarious. Lorenzo Rush Jr. is hysterical as Danny Reed, the talent agent.
And then there’s Marya Grandy.
Perhaps the finest comic actress on a Chicagoland stage, Grandy truly shines as Louise Badger, the inn’s Jill of all trades who doubles as an amateur therapist. It’s not simply her comedic timing, or her proficient vocals, or her ability to move with the best of them…. It’s all of those commingling into a sense that, despite the necessary conflicts that come with any piece of narrative art, this is all going to turn out all right because of her. If that’s not talent by another name, just what is?
All said, this is a truly stupendous production and the finest old-style Broadway show on a Chicagoland stage this season. There’s no good reason a true aficionado of musical theatre can give for neglecting to check into Holiday Inn.
Marriott Theatre presents “Holiday Inn” through January 6 at 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire. More information and tickets are available here.