Monday, November 3, 2014

Screen to Stage: Holiday Inn

Tally Sessions (centre) and the cast of Goodspeed's Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn (Photo:Diane Sobolewski)

Nine years ago Walter Bobbie mounted a stage version of the Irving Berlin holiday favorite, White Christmas, with a book by David Ives and Paul Blake and spiffy choreography by Randy Skinner. It was a charmer – more light-fingered and economical than the overscaled 1954 movie – though in one aspect it erred in not being extravagant enough. At the end, after the two protagonists (the characters played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye on screen) dedicated their show to their beloved old army general and the company settled in for the reprise of the title song, the set should have opened up for a real snowy finale. It was a missed opportunity – but a lovely production.

Now the Goodspeed Opera House has put up another theatrical adaptation of an Irving Berlin movie musical, that earlier holiday classic, 1942’s Holiday Inn, the original source of the Oscar-winning song “White Christmas.” Holiday Inn isn’t a great movie, but it’s pleasantly low-key, it stars Crosby and Fred Astaire, and the score also features “You’re Easy to Dance With,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” and “Happy Holiday,” which gets stuck in your noggin. The screenplay by Claude Binyon and Elmer Rice, from an idea by Berlin, is agreeable piffle. Crosby and Astaire are two-thirds of a show-biz trio, and Crosby’s Jim Hardy is engaged to marry the third member, Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) – or so he believes. The night before he leaves the stage to retire to a Connecticut farm he’s bought, Lila tells him that she’s sticking with Astaire’s Ted Hanover – professionally and romantically. Within a year, farm living defeats Jim; he comes up with a plan to open his new home as an inn-cum-theatre that operates only on holidays, and he lucks onto a leading lady, Linda Mason (the unremarkable Marjorie Reynolds), with whom he falls in love. Then, predictably, Ted shows up, having been jilted by Lila (for a Texas millionaire), in search of a new female dancing partner.

Patti Murin and Noah Racey (Photo:Diane Sobolewski)
The script for the Goodspeed Holiday Inn, by director Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, is mostly faithful to the original, though Linda (Patti Murin) has been converted from an aspiring singer-dancer into a home-town gal who used to own Jim’s farm and can’t pull herself away – and, incidentally, can sing and dance. The alteration makes mincemeat of the character’s motivation, but the main problem isn’t the writing of the heroine; it’s the overall blandness of the project, from the script to the staging to some of the major casting. Murin has the kind of creamy operetta voice that fades from the memory while you’re listening to it; Tally Sessions, as Jim, sings amiably but has very little personality. Hayley Podschun, who plays Lila, makes a slightly stronger impression and performs her numbers creditably (she only has two). But Susan Mosher, as a handywoman named Louise who moves into the inn and tries to solve Jim’s romantic problems – the part expands on the African-American housekeeper in the movie, played by Louise Beavers – does the kind of familiar toothy mugging that makes you want to look around for sanctuary. (I was reminded of Pauline Kael’s quip about a recycled routine in one of Danny Kaye’s less inspired vehicles that if he tries it in one more movie, even the infants will want to duck out for a smoke.)

On the upside, there are Danny Rutigliano as Ted’s endearing fireplug of an agent and the estimable Noah Racey as Ted. Racey is one of the best kept secrets in musical theatre; about a decade ago, he played the Astaire role in Never Gonna Dance, the Broadway version of Swing Time, and the Ray Bolger role in the Goodspeed’s revival of Where’s Charley?, and he was extraordinary in both. He’s the obvious choice to stand in for Astaire in Holiday Inn, and he’s the best thing on the stage, especially in the firecracker dance in the inn’s Fourth of July revue. But there isn’t enough for him to do. Ted disappears (with Lila) after the second scene – and the “You Can’t Brush Me Off” duet with Sessions – and except for a brief number with Podschun (“Plenty to Be Thankful For”) he doesn’t appear again until just before intermission, when he makes an amusingly plastered entrance at the inn.

In the fashion of contemporary musicals, the score is overloaded; there are more than two dozen songs, most of which have been interpolated from other Berlin shows and movies. I didn’t recognize “Nothing More to Say,” a pretty ballad Linda sings in counterpoint with Jim’s “What’ll I Do?” (one of the best known of Berlin’s 1920s output), but I was able to identify the sources of most of them: “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” and “It Only Happens When I Dance with You” from Easter Parade, “Heat Wave” from As Thousands Cheer, “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk” from Miss Liberty, “Marching Along with Time” from Alexander’s Ragtime Band (where it was introduced by Ethel Merman), and so on. “Shaking the Blues Away,” from Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, furnishes the material for a snappy ensemble number near the end of act one. (Denis Jones choreographed.) But this isn’t one of Goodspeed’s premium efforts; even the set (by Anna Louizos) is markedly lackluster. Ah, well – Guys and Dolls arrives in April.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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