Thursday, October 6, 2016

Old-Fashioned Comfort

Review: Holiday Inn

Corbin Bleu, Lora Lee Gayer, and Bryce Pinkham lead the cast of Holiday Inn at Studio 54. Not clearly pictured: fabulous Easter bonnets!

Holiday Inn is a curious concoction of a show. Pointedly subtitled The New Irving Berlin Musical, this old-fashioned musical comedy has never been seen onstage before but is adapted from a relatively well known 1940s movie musical. That Golden Age Hollywood pedigree proves both a blessing and a hindrance for the show, which is a refreshing throwback to the musicals of yesteryear that also highlights some of the storytelling shortcomings of the era. But those who can look past the plot contrivances and focus on the joyously staged musical numbers will find plenty to love in Roundabout Theatre Company's latest Broadway production, one of their rare forays into the world of "original" musicals.

The titular Holiday Inn is a converted farmhouse that only hosts guests on holidays, giving patrons a one night only musical extravaganza themed to the date's festivities. It is operated by Jim Hardy, a former entertainer and songwriter who initially wanted to give up show business but hatched the idea as a way to pay the bills after a failed attempt at farming. Joining him on this endeavor are his best friend, famed dancer Ted Hanover, and local schoolteacher Linda Mason, who herself once had dreams of performing.

The biggest problem with Holiday Inn's new book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge is that it takes an inordinately long time to set all this up. The creation of the Holiday Inn feels like the inciting incident of the story, but doesn't occur until at least 45 minutes into the show. The time before then is spent attempting to develop the characters and their backstory, which is admirable and yet misguided for this type of breezy musical comedy. The entertaining yet awkwardly slotted production numbers of the first half hour seem to suggest the bookwriters also don't trust their characters to hold the audience's attention, attempting to keep the energy up with multiple big dance sequences set to Irving Berlin's timeless tunes.

As with many musicals from the 1940s and 50s, the plot of Holiday Inn is secondary to the musical numbers and doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. The tension mostly stems from Jim Hardy's stubborn selfishness, and yet we are obviously meant to empathize with him as the kindhearted everyman. Many character actions are obviously motivated by the need to set up the next musical number, with several secondary characters disappearing and reappearing as needed with little explanation. The show's attempts at more weighty emotional stakes also fall flat, as there is never any real question about how the love triangle between the three leads will turn out. And yet it feels unfair to judge Holiday Inn too harshly for these structural faults, as it has no pretensions of being Shakespeare (or to use a more appropriate musical theatre reference, Sondheim).

In fact, the incredibly engaging cast and cavalcade of top notch production numbers override any narrative misgivings one might have. Bryce Pinkham brings the same easygoing charm to Jim Hardy as he did to the rakish Monty Navarro in the Tony-winning A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Corbin Bleu proves to be a consummate song and dance man, endowing Ted Hanover with charisma and star quality to spare. Lora Lee Gayer exhibits a refreshingly modern, self assured take on the classic ingenue archetype, while also managing to sneak in some subtly hilarious bits of sardonic humor. And Megan Lawrence is a reliably hilarious standout as Louise, the inn's caretaker and Jim Hardy's confidante.

But the real stars of Holiday Inn are choreographer Denis Jones' glittery musical numbers, sharply executed with an abundance of wit and charm. Expertly danced by one of the most appealing ensembles on Broadway, Jones' dances cover a wide array of period-appropriate styles and moods, with just enough modern razzle dazzle thrown in to hold the interest of contemporary audiences. Jones makes particularly clever use of the ensemble women during Ted's "You're Easy to Dance With" at the top of Act II, and stages a rousing patriotic spectacle for the inn's Fourth of July spectacular (including a fantastic tap showcase for Bleu). Most impressively, he has created a showstopper in the truest sense of the word for "Shaking the Blues Away," a glorious Christmas-themed extravaganza that sees Lawrence's Louise leading the entire ensemble in an athletic, multi-part tap marathon which culminates in some truly jaw dropping tricks involving a lot of garland. The number brings the house down and practically justifies Holiday Inn's existence on its own.

The show's holiday pastiches are greatly helped by Alejo Vietti's non-stop parade of themed costumes. Whether Vietti has the ensemble decked out in Thanksgiving themed leotards with accompanying turkey tails, red-white-and-blue striped nautical outfits, or the most glorious Easter bonnets seen on Broadway in quite some time, the costumes never look less than stunning. The production is also blessed with one of the most elaborate sets in Roundabout's history courtesy of Anna Louizos, all lovingly lit by Jeff Croiter. And bookwriter Gordon Greenberg pulls double duty as the production's director, keeping everything moving at a pace fast enough that you don't have time to focus on the structural flaws without ever having the show feel rushed.

In a world increasingly rife with political and social turmoil, it's nice to have a lighthearted musical like Holiday Inn around to keep the mood festive. Irving Berlin's timeless melodies reaffirm his position as one of the great American songwriters, and form the backbone to a series of wonderfully entertaining production numbers choreographed by Denis Jones. The hardworking, immensely appealing cast wins you over even when their material is less than stellar, and only the most curmudgeonly on audience members won't find at least something to enjoy. Like most actual holidays, the deeper feelings behind Holiday Inn may get glossed over in favor of festive spectacle, but that's part of the appeal.


  1. This is probably the most positive review I've seen for this show, as most critics reviews are either very negative or mildly positive. I know last year you felt Dames At Sea was extremely underrated. Do you think this is the most underrated show of the year?

    1. I think it is far to premature to call anything the most underrated show of the year, as we are about 3 shows into this current Broadway season. I think most of the criticisms lobbied against the show are valid but also ignore what it's trying to do. If a show is mostly aiming to be entertaining and you prefer more thought provoking fare, the problem lies as much in your expectations as any flaw in the writing.